'Hotmail' Sabeer Bhatia on The Idea of 'Failure'

December 09, 2007
GV Krishnan

When Sabeer Bhatia, who made his first million early in life, talks about the idea of 'failure' he ought to be taken seriously. It is not in our business culture to embrace failure, he says - 'we have not matured with the idea of failure'. People are surprised when he tells them that the story of Silicon Valley has been that nine out of ten products failed, but the one that made it more than made up for all earlier losses.

A failure is seen in the US as 'a badge of honour', as he put it; as an experience you learn from; something that spurs you to try again; and something that works up your hunger for success. And what does he find in India? You have people (promoters) saying, "Oh God, you've failed; I'm not sure if I would want to come anywhere close to you".

Mr Bhatia told the BBC the other day that raising funds for new ventures was tough here. India isn't such a hot or happening place for young techies with big business ideas, particularly if their ideas entail risks. And it is not in our business culture to factor in failure. Safe and secure are the attributes that attract funding. A project idea fraught with risks is, simply, no, no. According to Mr Bhatia, any new product that comes out of Silicon Valley takes five to seven years to realize its business potentials.

Google Search, starting in 1999, didn't make a go of it till 2005. Sabeer's 'Live Documents' took four years in developing. Mr Bhatia conceded he was lucky to have made a pile on Hotmail within two years. This was a decade back. As a student in Pilani he never thought he would become a businessman one day. And he did, with a bang, at Silicon Valley. Perhaps, it had something to do with Mr Bhatia's peer group at Stanford - Steve Jobs (who started Apple Computer) and Vinod Khosla of Sun. Though his subsequent business initiatives have not been such big hits, Mr Bhatia's Hotmail story still opens many doors for him.

I wonder if our home-grown first-generation millionaires in business – Infosys' Murthy, HCL's Nadar, Jet's Goyal and Deccan's Gopinath – share Mr Bhatia's perception that desi business culture constricts techno-preneurs, and that institutions in India tend to value experience and seniority, rather than intellect and creativity. His insight into business culture helps us get a sense of the predicament of our middle-class entrepreneurs, with knowledge as the prime asset. Power-point presentation of their bright ideas is, perhaps, the only collateral our knowledge-driven entrepreneurial class, can offer prospective funding agencies. These guys can take their bright ideas elsewhere. Some do.

Which is such a pity. For, in Mr Bhatia's reckoning, "our economy, the way it is going, allows people to take phenomenal risks and become superbly successful in three or four years." He concedes cultural constraints made it tough for many young techies to explore their bright ideas, and take them to entrepreneurial level - "we have so many have-nots that people here are happy differentiating themselves from the have-nots."

Our mindset is not amenable to taking risks; our business mentality finds failure unacceptable. Maybe, when they next hold or a global business summit, organizers should have a session on the dynamics of failure, inviting speakers who have faced notable failures.Our business leaders are fond of summit-ing only with those who have made it big. It is time they realized there is much to be learnt from the failures.

We needn't celebrate failure, as Mr Bhatia says Americans do, and see it as 'a badge of honour'. But we need to learn not to be scared of failures, if we want to realize the full potentials of our economy, as Mr Sabeer Bhatia sees it.

Retired Times of India correspondent, based in Mysore.; hosts MysoreBlogPark, a parking lot for a bunch of Mysore-connected bloggers; writes a Monday column for
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December 9, 2007
10:16 AM

Completely OT.

Google Search, starting in 1999, didn't make a go of it till 2005.

Please define "make a go," as, in 2005, Google was $40-50 bn company!

Sabeer's 'Live Documents' took four years in developing.

Not being critical of his efforts, but if Live Documents is supposed to be online alternative for MS Office 2007, where did they get copy of MS Office 2007 in 2003?

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