What do you believe are the most critical success factors for a startup company looking to scale?
There are many, let me pick three.
The first is market timing. When will the market opportunity open and will the product be ready when this happens? Market dynamics are rarely within the control of a startup, but product features and launch can be managed. Success comes with not being too early nor too late with your product. Founders (including me) often underestimate the time needed for market and product readiness. These things are always hard to synchronize, but building insight into market dynamics and adapting the product timing accordingly can certainly help.
Next is your team. The importance of hiring top talent and building ‘A’ teams is hard to overstate. Competition is ever present and only the best teams win. I also found it useful to build teams with a background drawn from diverse educational and industry backgrounds. Diversity helps build a broader skill base and improves the quality of decision making. Founders and their teams should also understand that a successful startup makes huge demands on their time, energy, and perseverance. Energy and momentum are essential ingredients for success.
Lastly it is execution – it is not the only thing, it is everything. Build a plan, and then – day-to-day, week-to-week and month-to-month – follow through to make it happen. There will be any number of roadblocks to scaling a startup, but executing to a plan despite these obstacles makes all the difference.
Startups inevitably face challenges as they pursue growth – what advice do you give to founders?
Perseverance is key. In early days of a new startup, for every little success, one often experiences many setbacks. Building a completely new technology-based business is always very complex and frequent roadblocks should be no surprise. Often, only companies with founders who stick with it – and more importantly also carry their teams though hard times and painful learning – finally succeed. Success has many rewards, but the greatest of them is the value to society from a widely deployed, high-value technology product.
Patience is important as well. Quite often, despite the best planning, the market opportunity pulls away, and the company must sit it out. A great example of this is one of today’s prominent semiconductor companies, that years ago came very close to shutting its doors, but fortunately decided to stay the course, and later transformed their industry. I remember once reading a sign in a restaurant that said, "Good cooking takes time, and if you are made to wait, it is because we want to serve you great food." This is true for startups as well. Success needs patience.
Execution is not the only thing – it is everything. There will be any number of roadblocks to scaling a startup, but executing to a plan despite these obstacles makes all the difference.
Please share a bit about your training and professional background.
I joined the Navy as a cadet in the National Defense Academy, Pune, India in 1961. After some years of mostly practical training within the Navy, I spent 20 years on R&D assignments. This included building the Indian Navy’s sonar technology, founding three national laboratories – spanning AI and Robotics, High Speed Computing and Military Electronics – as well as sabbaticals at Stanford and Loughborough Universities.
While I was largely involved in technology development, I contributed to fundamental theory as well. From 1968-71, on assignment to the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, India, I developed a general theory for signal estimation that significantly impacted and unified that entire field. Later, from 1984-86, on assignment to Stanford University, USA, I developed the ESPRIT algorithm, which attracted worldwide attention and is now used in Radars and radio locations systems.
In 1991, after early retirement from the Indian Navy, I returned to Stanford University to join the faculty at the Electrical Engineering Dept. Soon thereafter, based on some experimental observations, I invented the MIMO wireless concept. MIMO, however, faced widespread skepticism till around 1998, when it finally began to gain traction. I founded a VC-funded company, Iospan Wireless, to build a new generation cellular technology based on MIMO. Iospan started a long journey in MIMO development, and it now underpins a multi trillion-dollar wireless industry, touching many billions of people.
What’s the professional achievement you’re most proud of to date?
In terms of social impact, I would put MIMO at the very top, as it is almost universally impacting since it enables WiFi or 4G / 5G. My role was to invent the concept and develop the early applications of this technology in mobile networks. It has since taken tens of thousands of researchers and engineers to build the technology that we use today for broadband wireless access.
In terms of innovation, I would rate my work contribution to the Indian Navy’s sonars at the top. That work remains in the classified military domain, but it involved many innovations and breakthroughs.
What does your role as an Investment Advisor with Celesta entail?
My links to Celesta come through our Managing Partner Sriram Viswanathan. I first met Sriram in 1986 in India. I was the Director of an AI and Robotics Lab under the Indian Govt., and Sriram, then a fresh college grad, was exploring an internship at the lab. We reconnected many years later in the 2000s when he was at Intel Capital and I was at Stanford University and was building a couple of semiconductor companies. Around 2016, Sriram started a VC Fund called Indusage, and I joined as an advisor to his fund and that continued through the team’s evolution into Celesta.
At Celesta, I support our fundraising in India. I also support information technology investments and do hands-on technology and partnership development with relevant portfolio companies.
I remain active in foundational research in wireless and AI and serve on related Govt. and Academy committees in the US and sometimes also in India. Much of this work is in charting technology gaps and policy initiatives. Hopefully some of this can be of some relevance to our portfolio companies.
How do you think VC investors best partner with their portfolio companies? How does Celesta add value?
As a former founder of three VC backed companies, I have seen various engagement models of VC teams. However, I find Celesta to be particularly supportive and hands-on. One of the things we do well is to connect our startups with other ecosystem companies to build effective win-win partnerships. I have observed outstanding engagement by the Celesta team on this. Another area in which we excel is when our partners step into a portfolio company to fill in temporary gaps in business or engineering leadership. Both types of support have been crucial for some of our portfolio companies navigating key turning points of growth.
In your experience, what one factor most differentiates successful technology startups from those who struggle?
The biggest differentiating factor in a startup is its culture. High-performance, growth-minded cultures are built upon openness to new information and feedback, facing the truth and tackling problems head on, teamwork and mutual respect, and a commitment to excellence in every detail.
No matter how great an idea or innovation, nothing can overcome a poor culture.