3 Reasons Why Rejection Can Be Good For You

In 1988 just as I was about to finish up my Ph.D. and finally graduate, a good friend Murali arranged for me to interview with his group at Intel. My father, who was visiting, insisted on driving down with me to Santa Clara, as he was bored out of his mind hanging around my apartment. I dropped my dad at the Marriott, I think, around the corner and went on to my interview with Intel.

It did not go well.

I recall Murali’s boss asking me about how a PN junction works and being greatly offended mostly because I flubbed the answer. I don’t recall how the rest of the meeting went, safe to say not too well. In an ego-protecting move, my brain seems to have blanked it out completely. Needless to say, I never heard back from them.

It stops you from being complacent I realized that I’d just not prepared for my interview. I’m not sure what I’d thought – that I was a Berkeley grad or that I could answer anything on the fly. The interview that day made me face, how clueless and complacent I was.

It makes you better prepared It was not easy to admit to myself, the assumptions I’d made had made me complacent in the first place. Challenging the assumptions was a start but not sufficient. I realized being better prepared was the answer. Of course it took me more than one screw up, to learn this lesson and even today I find I could always be better prepared.

It leaves you open for better opportunities Little did I realize that flubbing the Intel interview was not a bad thing, for that’s how I ended up at National Semiconductor. Intel’s enormous success stemmed from their relentless and singular focus on what needed to be accomplished – this translated to new graduates often having to work on a reasonably narrow scope of things, for a good deal of time. That is not a bad thing! In fact, it’s a good thing to focus and go deep but just wasn’t my thing. Guess my inability to do one thing at a time is not a recent phenomenon.

At National, they just threw you at a problem, often a big one, and let you go at it – not pretty or efficient, but enormously educational. And if you were interested in something and prepared to put in the hours they were happy to hand it to you. Of course, this may explain their meanderings and lack of profitability the first five years I was there, but talk about learning on the job. Over the last 20 years, many of my successes and particularly my problem-solving expertise was built in those early years at National. They also spent a great deal on educating me on things that I felt then, as unrelated to my job role. This is something that I’m immensely grateful for, particularly to my managers and colleagues who guided me with great patience and fortitude.

Of course, if I’d paid attention in school and actually learned how a darn P-N junction worked, I might have learned just as much or even more at Intel, but I suspect given my own personality I wouldn’t have. So despite the disappointment, I felt that day driving back – with my father trying to assure me that he was sure I’d done well in the interview – it all turned out well.

And I’ve learned since then rejection need not be bad always.

As I’ve heard my wife say often to our daughters, when one door closes, God opens another. This has been my experience and I’m grateful for it.

Measure first and other lessons from a friend

“Why don’t you tell me what you know about placement in EDA?”

The questions started easily enough. My interviewer, Brent Gregory was this lanky gentleman with a very easy air about him. His soft voice and pleasant manner belied the incisiveness with which the questions came. Within five minutes, maybe sooner, he’d established the limits of my knowledge on the subject of electronic design automation. More importantly, he’d made me truly aware of what things I had clarity on and what I merely knew of.

The next fifty-five minutes were spent in educating me, on what it is his team was attempting to build and answering questions that I had. Here I was, having worked for over twelve years at that time in two countries – in a billion-dollar tech firm and in two startups  – selling to other tech businesses across Europe, Israel, Japan and the US. Yet Brent Gregory in under five minutes had established the limits of what I knew – certainly as it pertained to his company’s business and focused on getting me to understand the problem they were trying to solve and why their approach was likely the better one.

Measure first before you cut This old tailor’s maxim can’t be stated too often. Brent Gregory taught me this lesson that first day I met him. He seemed to come into the interview with few assumptions – took the time to get to know what I did know (about EDA that day) rather than spending a lot of time asking me either needless form questions or trying to show me how much smarter he was than me (he still is!) As entrepreneurs we like to think we are action-oriented but how often do we plan (measure) before we act (cut)? By no means have I mastered this lesson, but I’m getting better at it.

Value your team Brent was unique as a leader – while he led a research group – practically every member of the group or so it seemed, was in a different country. He did have a couple of other folks in the same building, but he had an engineer in Goa, India – one in Spain (or maybe the south of France). While distributed teams were not unheard of, a single team with its members scattered around the globe had its share of challenges. However, Brent always made sure that the appropriate member of his team got the credit and recognition they deserved and held himself accountable even while protecting his team’s freedom to work from wherever they were. This in a company that would have preferred everyone being in the same building. Unlike many other scientists and researchers, Brent was also immensely appreciative of the marketing team and the value they brought and always prepared to listen and learn why we proposed some of what we did – even while his boss, our CTO, many times voiced his opinion that “our innovative products would sell themselves.”

Simplify The sign of good engineer for me is one who can explain what he does in simple words that mere mortals can understand. Brent in that regard has few peers to take a complex matter – such as our placement algorithm – and explain not just what it did, but why it did it that way and how it was not just different but better than other methods. This allowed not only the applications engineering team but the marketing team to better communicate, position and support customers with conviction. Simplifying without trivializing – is not an easy thing to do – as folks trying to explain the reasons to stay within the EU (against the Brexit) have recently discovered.

Seventeen years after I first met Brent Gregory, I continue to admire him for his understated and measured manner of working. Thank you, Brent, for teaching me a whole lot and being such a good listener.

A variety of people — colleagues, friends, managers and mentors have taught me many lessons that have helped me grow. This article is one in a series sharing what I’ve learned and my gratitude for the lessons they’ve taught me. You can jump to any of the specific posts in my gratitude series below.

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Leaders come in all shapes and other lessons from a mentor

It would be a lie if I said that I had a well-threshed out idea of who or what a good leader was, when I was 25. Sure, I’d already had nine years of college by then, lived in 5 cities across two countries. It wasn’t for lack of exposure. However, my idea of a leader, certainly till that time, had been all extroverted, Type A personalities, many larger than life. Starting with my father, maternal grandfather, role models in college and my graduate adviser, every one of them had fit this mold. And then I met Brad Bradford.

Eighteen months into my first job, I got promoted to be a section manager – fancy title for doing more of the same, but this time it was my rear that was on the line. Brad had been my manager’s manager and now here I was reporting into him. While I’m no physical giant, being much slimmer than me (not too hard, these days) Brad was small made. On top of it, he was quiet, understated and very measured when he spoke.

Brad made me completely reassess what a leader is and how a leader operates. Some of these lessons bear repeating as I keep falling into my old ways.

Bearing & carriage I recall my mom often urging me to stand straight and not slouch. Brad was living proof of what my poor mom had meant by bearing and carriage. The manner in which he stood, walked and carried himself communicated loudly even when he didn’t say a word. Once when the production line was down and we were furiously trying experiments, some of which were 12 hours long, to figure out what was broken. Brad would walk over to my cubicle and stand right there and look at me – not a word would be said to communicate that he was there to support us and to make sure we gave it our all. On that Monday day the factory was sold and we’d all been called to a meeting to tell us that we’d no longer have a job, Brad’s bearing and carriage said more about how we’d survive this and carry on than any words could have.

Action not words While I’ve always been voluble, some might say long-winded, Brad was – and I suspect still is –  a man of few words. This is not to say that he didn’t have a lot to say but he was the archetype of SHOW not tell. Whether pressing with upper management for more resources, negotiating with vendors or getting down to the factory floor to run or check on experiments, Brad was not big on “Let me tell you…” but got out there and did it. Never once in the two years I’d worked with him did I hear Brad raise his voice. All too often I had to strain to hear what he was saying!

Smile and humor For a man from Minnesota, working with a bunch of young, fresh graduates from India, Iran, Eastern Europe and laid back West Coast types, I’m surprised Brad didn’t throw things at us or at least yell even if he might have been tempted to take an axe (or the whatever weapon of choice Minnesotans had). As our factory was being, built once a week we’d have a crisis. The factory director, a storybook Texan with an enormous temper, would lead the raving and ranting that involved much frothing at the mouth. We young ‘uns would be easily offended and spoiling for a fight at being accused of doing a poor job. Brad on the other hand, unflappable as ever, would be an island of calm. He had a devastating smile and an understated sense of humor, that not only maintained his sanity but kept the rest of us cowboys in line.

Brad, thank you for showing me what leadership is and how you can lead effectively without being an Attila. I’m still learning to practice some of the lessons you’ve taught me.

You can read all the posts in my 30 days of gratitude series here.

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Visualization and other lessons from a friend

“He’s my colleague’s son-in-law. You should connect with him, soon as you get to Bangalore.”

I don’t know about you, but as a young man, I usually did not jump on friend recommendations that my father-in-law made. So it was nearly a year after we’d moved to Bangalore that I finally connected with Ramani. And boy was I glad I did – my life – nay our lives – my wife, kids and I would have never been the same if we hadn’t met Ramani and his family. Over the years Ramani has been many things – first a friend, a walking and yoga partner, a teacher, student, at times a project for me and often a sounding board.

Sense of humor Chitra and I can’t help but smile anytime we talk of Ramani. Few people I’ve met is so ready with a smile and laugh as Ramani is. Despite many business challenges he might be facing as an entrepreneur, Ramani is always not just ready to listen but to laugh with us. And even better often laugh at himself. All to often, he’s exactly what the doctor ordered. There are times I suspect I call him just to hear him laugh – it’s a tonic. Sure accounts receivable may be hell, customers may be complaining and cash flow may be a problem, but keeping your sense of humor helps you not only cope with all this but to be there for others.

Community Just after we first met, Ramani invited the family and me to an event organized by a non-profit, Premaanjali Educational Trust (PET Forum) he had co-founded. Even by Indian standards of extended families and communities, the PET forum was an amazing group – mostly first generation entrepreneurs who’d gotten together to make a difference in the community even as they were just getting their businesses rolling. What made this different for me, was the degree to which the families of the entrepreneurs – particularly the kids – were engaged with the cause. The manner in which we were welcomed into the group as Ramani’s friends was overwhelming. Active to this day, Ramani has lived the truth that giving back to community is something you do NOW in the midst of our messy lives. It’s not just something you plan to do one of these days or when you retire.

Power of visualisation To say Ramani is an optimist – then again which entrepreneur isn’t – doesn’t describe him adequately. He’s been an active practitioner (and proponent) of the power of visualisation. When he first spoke of it to me, I’m sure I was skeptical, yet his passion and belief moved me to give it a shot. That and several crisis in my business found me ready to try nearly anything. To this day I’m glad that I listened to him and use this technique to both prepare myself as well as work towards my goals.

Thank you Ramani, for being such a wonderful listener, friend and teacher. I’m truly grateful that you are in our lives and all the difference that you’ve made.

You can read all the posts in my 30 days of gratitude series here.

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Be Bold and Reach for the Stars – lessons from a mentor

Do you think I could get a bottle of coke?

Gareth Thomas

Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy of the U. S. Department of Energy and the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Hardly words that change your life. But they did in my case. Gareth Thomas, then director of the National Center for Electron Microscopy at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL) and professor at the University of California at Berkeley was visiting our college at the Banaras Hindu University, when he asked for this bottle of coke. During the two days of his visit I had been unusually reticent as the rest of my classmates clamoured to get the “great man”‘s attention – I of course covered it by acting as though I was too cool to chase after him.

Long story short, I was tasked to get him that bottle of coke. I ended up jumping in his car en route to the airport. We made small talk as he asked me what I was interested in (damned if I knew). He suggested that I read his recent papers on ceramic composites and send him a note. Which for once I did – working like the devil – and in turn he offered me a research assistantship at Berkeley.

Gareth was a larger than life figure, whose impact on hundreds, yep hundreds, of graduate students has resulted in an entire generation of microscopists populating the best research schools across the US and UK. Working closely with him, taught me some critical life lessons.

Be bold Gareth grew up in Wales and as a Welshman in 1950’s Cambridge it was not easy to study and work in England . So like many before him he headed west to America and rapidly carved a niche for himself in metallurgy initially and electron microscopy eventually. He never let anything stand in the way of his vision of becoming the #1 in his chosen field, culminating in Berkeley and LBL becoming the go-to place for Electron Microscopy. The story of how the Center was built despite LBL sitting on the San Andreas fault and the slightest movement would make microscopy impossible is a whole another blog post by itself. So here was this fire plug of a man, who didn’t let a new country, new field, minor matter of earthquake country and money stop him from building a Centre that would add prestige to a University that boasted more Nobel Laureates than most other nations! Think big and go for it was a lesson Gareth lived.

Be imaginative By the time I showed up at Berkeley, we had probably the only one of two research groups that still worked on Iron and Steel (this was the early eighties, and classical metallurgy seemed passé!) We had graduate students doing some interesting work and our papers had to be peer-reviewed. Research was still competitive and so we were in a fix. Gareth located research groups in South Korea and India (the only places where iron and steel research was still happening) and reached out to them, so that a critical mass of researchers could be built up. Similarly when some of our early work in ceramics, aluminum nitride for instance was having trouble getting funding, he went across to Toshiba and other corporations in Japan to fund our work. To keep things on the up and up, he let his grad students do some of these as projects directly with the company as consulting gigs, so archaic University rules around corporate funding of research programs didn’t stop work.

Balance business and science Very early on Gareth recognized that doing good science or engineering required serious funding and that government alone would not be enough. Also while research is critical, its applicability in the real world was just as important. While other schools and sometimes other professors at Berkeley prided themselves on not working on anything applied, Gareth showed us that it as never OR – good science or good business but it is critical as engineers and scientists for us to solve real world problems or direct our research in a way that would have real world applicability. Of course the proof of the pudding lay in industry being willing to fund our research, hire his grad students or license the technology. The number of Gareth’s students who are today in critical research and decision-making roles in both government and industry is living proof of his success in balancing business and science.

Thank you Gareth for all that taught me, outside of microscopy and material science. I’m grateful to have met you and worked with you. I miss you.

Gareth passed away earlier this February.

This is the eighth entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series.
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Taking risks and other lessons from a mentor

I have a job offer from Infosys and an option to start my own business — what do you think I should do?

NS Raghavan

The question was posed by a young man who approached N.S. Raghavan (NSR), former joint managing director and one of the founders of Infosys. When Raghavan responded, “Take the job with Infosys,” the youngster was taken aback. In Raghavan’s words, “If you are an entrepreneur, starting a business is not an option that you consider alongside taking a job — you’d just do it!”

The story was narrated by Raghavan himself soon after he had invested in our first business Impulsesoft. The best way to describe my experience with Raghavan was that he was truly an “angel” – not just in that he invested but in how he gave us a long rope – always available for input and help but never looking over our shoulder, even as we stumbled from one crisis to another in those early years. In those five years that he was an investor, booster and mentor to us, we’d have had maybe two meetings a year – yet the insights he shared and the spirit he imbued in us were invaluable. Two critical lessons I learned from NSR were

Be willing to take risks We’d been in business of nearly five years, when we broke even and made a small profit. It was amply clear that we were not going to die, but the market was consolidating around us and we’d have to either integrate forward – enter the consumer market as a brand or backward into chip making. Neither was very easy  – the former needing large marketing investments and potentially a low margin, high volume business. The latter a prohibitive capital expenditure and changing who we were (primarily software). Having worked with the likes of Logitech and Sony (Ericsson), we were quite enamoured with the consumer retail business – possibly because we were not in it 😉 So in a board meeting we were presenting the pros and cons – and trying to hedge our bets, when Raghavan spoke up – You’ve got to take risks in business – if, staying in the same place is no longer an option, and your passion lies in trying to build a consumer brand, go for it. And we did – setting up Hippo Lifestyles in Singapore. And we struggled but the story had a good ending when our semiconductor customers and partners approached us seeking a merger. Our decision (and willingness) to go our own way and risk building a consumer brand, allowed us to negotiate more confidently resulting in a profitable acquisition. This is a lesson that’s stayed with me.

Being an angel means letting the entrepreneurs make the call Despite NSR’s investment in our business, we were quickly out of money and needed more. So we went back to borrow some money from him and did so twice. While we’d stayed focused on Bluetooth, we zigged and zagged years before the word pivoting was fashionable – going wide, going narrower (only stereo music), building proof of concept hardware systems, laying off our still-born chip design team, creating new standards (for bluetooth in a car), exiting the highly profitable Japanese service market, to focus on the laggard North American market, nearly merged with a North American design company (that was our customer). If you are still with me, you can tell it was a rocky ride with a lots of turns – Raghavan was supportive throughout all of this, not butting in till we sought his council and always nudging us to come up with the answers and not jumping right in with his solution. This is not an easy thing, even when you are not an investor. I’m yet to possess this degree of dispassion but NSR’s example continues to inspire me. So when I hear someone bad mouth an angel, I find myself jumping in citing his example.

Thank you NSR, for your incredible faith and all the support and inspiration you provided us through out the Impulsesoft journey. You continue to inspire me and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have worked with you.


This is the seventh entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series.
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Get your hands dirty and other lessons from a friend

You might want to keep your hands in your pockets.

I think I’ve always gesticulated with my hands and I never realized it but I also am a toucher. I touch people when I talk to them. I’d been in grad school for about two months and met Marcel, a fellow grad student in the same department, but working for a different professor. I can’t recall how we struck up a friendship, we couldn’t have been more different. Marcel was this serious Dutch guy with a Masters studying computational Material Science. I had been voted – most likely to be hurt in a political dustup and not graduate – while at BHU.

A couple of months after we’d  become friends, Marcel took me aside and told me, “ Western men don’t usually like to be touched by other men!” I didn’t realize that I had been not just waving my hands but clasping hands or otherwise touching the guys I was talking to. Coming from India, where it’s common to see two guys holding hands or hands across each other’s shoulders, the concept of personal space, was a little alien to me.  I think I was aghast, when Marcel recommended using my pockets to hold my hands. Well that was only the first of many lessons I was to learn from Marcel over the four years we were in grad school together.

Walk in the wilderness Marcel introduced me to hiking. In fact once we even took my unsuspecting mom on a gruelling 5 mile hike in Briones National Park in Northern California. I’ll never forget the day, he let a lizard that was sunning itself on a trail, crawl on to his hand to admire it. We spent days camping in the rain on Pt. Reyes National Park. Having lived all my life in cities and having grown up in India, I’d lost the connect to nature and land – that I saw my grandparents have in rural India and Marcel helped me rediscover in America. Both of our research work, meant hours cooped up in a basement, often in a dark room with a microscope or photo chemicals in my case or in an attic warren for him. So getting out there in nature, spending time walking or even just lying in a tent in pouring rain, taught me to both take a break and reconnect with nature as well as return invigorated to the work at hand. Through out my subsequent startups, most of my 1:1s I’ve had walking in a park in Bangalore and in an open school playground. Stay connected to nature, appreciate and engage with the outdoors is a lesson that I’ve learned from Marcel.

Don’t let little or big things stop you Many months after I met Marcel is when I learned that he did not hear so good in one of his ears. Of course that explained why he prefered to always walk one side when we hiked or otherwise did things together. This ear went from bad to worse till he had to have surgery many years later to try to fix his hearing in addition to using electronic aids. Yet many of our most fun times together was when he played the piano, which he did a great job of – whether for Christmas carolling or at a dinner party. Conferences meant giving talks, attending more and networking. From Marcel’s music or enjoyment of the piano, you could never tell that he was hampered in any way – so he did not let little or in this instance big things around his hearing from doing the things he loved or being able to do his professional roles. So on days when I’m throwing a snit for not getting the right sort of pencil or getting good copy writers I have to remind myself of what I learned – don’t let the little or big things stop me from doing what needed to or wanted to get done.

Get your hands dirty For a guy who’s research involving electronically computing phase diagrams from first principles, Marcel could fix cars like a mechanic. He bought a fixer-upper in Richmond-Berkeley border and really fixed it up – doing carpentry, plumbing and a great deal of gardening. And he could cook up a pretty good storm. Before meeting him, I’d have had a hard time fixing anything beyond checking if the darn thing was plugged in. By no means am I any good at plumbing, electrical work, dry walling or any of the other manly contractor jobs – but I’ve gotten to be darn good cook (even if I say so myself), a semi-decent do it yourself (DIY-er) and odd jobs guy. More importantly I got to appreciate the value of being able to do such work and the people who are good at it. Many years later in my first startup this lesson got reinforced, when we build several teams of sharp kids, but few of whom had actually gotten their hands dirty, building stuff. Marcel was a maker before the Maker movement. I’d like to think i get my hands more dirty these days, and the credit for that goes to Marcel.

Thank you Marcel, for being such a wonderful friend. I don’t think I’d have completed Engineering Mathematics or graduated but for your help and for all the life lessons you’ve taught me. I’m grateful to have you in my life.

This is the sixth entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 |

Separate the personal and professional – lessons from a mentor

You don’t know my children – they will take care of their mother!

My father was in the process of making a will, and was not too happy with where the conversation was going. Badrinarayanan, chartered accountant, good friend and a mentor, didn’t back down – he was polite yet firm. “I have no doubt your children are the finest people. But it is better that you make sure your wife is not dependent on any of them.” I think my dad did not speak with Badri for a few days after that – yet he did go with Badri’s recommendation.

Photo : Ravages via Compfight

Photo : Ravages via Compfight

In this meeting and many others I had a chance to see Badri handle a variety of issues with a great deal of finesse in his own understated style – never raising his voice, using humor, often self-deprecatory, to overcome objections or cut through hard problems.

Here are two lessons that I’ve learned from Badri.

Separate the personal and professional Badri and I met when I was working for his brother – so it was a social connect. It was when I was toying with kicking off my startup – a full year and half after quitting his brother’s firm, that he connected me with my future partners. With them I went on to build, grow and sell our first startup Impulsesoft. Since then Badri’s been the auditor for two of my startups, his firm were my personal tax accountants, till I took my (miniscule) business to a one-man firm. Through all these changes – working with his brother, working with one another professionally and then not – our relationship has only grown richer and deeper. Badri sends a steady stream of young entrepreneurs whom he believes may benefit from my experiences – even though I probably learn more from them! Through the last 18 years, he’s repeatedly been an exemplary model of professionalism worth emulating.

Keep a sense of perspective Just as his business was taking off, Badri faced some serious health challenges, which severely stressed his professional and personal situation. The manner in which he not only traversed the hard times but the optimism and good cheer he carried with him to the other side is not something I’ve encountered outside of books. The acute sense of perspective – of what is really important has enabled him to balance the endless challenges of work with the needs of personal health and family. He’s my role model when I find myself either getting too self-important or overwhelmed by what’s happening around me.

Thank you Badri, for being a wonderful friend,  an inspiration and a role model. I’m grateful that you are in my life and appreciate all the support through the years.

This is the fifth entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series.

Make Haste Slowly – lessons from a mentor

Now lookee here! You gotta sloow down!

via Comfight

via Comfight

I was fresh out of college, all rearing to go. My work buddy, mentor and fellow process engineer Ken Bohannon had been working longer than I’d lived. The very first day it was clear none of what I’d learned in nine years of college was going to be of much use, as we set out to build a green field semiconductor factory. The team was a motley crew of experienced hands and fresh grads, split probably right down the middle. Our little work group was itself a virtual United Nations – Ken, from Louisana, Tony from Samoa, Mohsen from Iran, Joel the token Washington native and yours truly from India.

Ken and I couldn’t have been more different – he was a 6 feet 4+ inches tall, built like a linebacker, spoke slowly with a Lousiana drawl that was never too far. He was unflappable, patient, ready with a question and slow to jump to conclusions. I was a foot shorter, easily excitable, prone to act first and think later. Hence his frequent reminders to slow down!

In the short two years we worked together, 18 months in the same department, Ken taught me not just all about diffusion and furnaces, but how to work well with operators on the factory floor, all of whom had vastly greater experience than us, the maintenance crew who were suspicious of all the college kids and engineers and vendors of all stripes. The real lessons I learnt from Ken are:

Making haste slowly We were building new processes, on new equipment and in some instances we were building the equipment themselves. This was the time when six-inch wafer were being used for the first time and so the number of things that could go wrong was enormous and things did go wrong. So rather than run yet another 12 hour experiment overnight, it made sense to stop, take stock, think through what it is we were seeing and what made sense, if we wanted to get the production line fixed before the next shift showed up. All clearly sensible in hindsight. However, Ken’s calm approach and gentle prodding is what taught me to balance my need to rush forth with some forethought – hence making haste slowly. Can’t say I’ve mastered it but Ken is where it all started.

Working with younger people Today as a father of teens and working with young entrepreneurs professionally, it is only recently I’ve learned to appreciate what Ken must have gone through with me. At no point did he make big deal about working with clearly no-nothing, not-prepared to listen folks such as myself. Even more importantly, he was very willing to learn from us, the few things that we did know a little more about – whether the VAX VMS systems or statistics or wordprocessing software.

Knowing what you love Even in the backwaters of suburban Tacoma in the late eighties – NY city or Silicon Valley it wasn’t – a lot of the people in our company were hustling to get ahead. Ken was not only laid back, or maybe he was laid back, ’cause he was clear about his priorities. He was the first person that I heard say I don’t want to be a manager – of course he’d been there and done it. He was comfortable with himself and who he was, clear about what he wanted and confident enough to be vocal about it. I can’t say I understood it then, but since then clearly I’ve gotten a little smarter and envy his clarity and courage of conviction.

Ken, thank you for all that you’ve taught me – including what March madness was. I’m yet to master slowing down, but am grateful for having you in my life and putting to good use a great deal of what I learned from you.

This is the fourth entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series.

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Answering uncomfortable questions and others lessons from mentors

“When are you going to sell your company?”

Photo Credit: Oberazzi via Compfight

Photo Credit: Oberazzi via Compfight

I was taken aback. My good friend and former boss, Sandeep Khanna had suggested that I talk to Pravin Madhani, kick-ass sales guy and serial entrepreneur who’d just sold his previous company for a sizeable chunk of change. My intention in meeting with him, was to learn about raising capital. This was in 2000, when the internet bubble had burst and we were still holding day jobs as we tried to bootstrap Impulsesoft, our Bluetooth startup.

I think my first response to Pravin’s question was a somewhat offended “We’re trying to build a business here – we’re not going to sell it.” To Pravin’s credit, he kept his laughter to mere chuckles and persisted.

This was the first of several meetings I had over nearly two years – usually months apart. Every time we met his first question would be about selling the company – a variant of “When are you..” or “Have you already..” Initially I felt very uncomfortable about this question and wasn’t sure if I really wanted to talk to him. To my we-are-trying-to-build-a-Sony-or-HP sensibility, his questions seemed far too commercial. Luckily good sense prevailed and I did continue to meet with him and he too met with me enthusiastically, despite my clear discomfort.

I came to not only value but look forward to my meetings with Pravin. Three critical lessons I learned from Pravin

The need for clarity Why are you in business or for that matter why are you doing whatever it is you are doing? Examine this closely. Each time you seek to answer this, go past the easy or evident answers. My meetings with him were always the exercises in asking Why five or more times. And clarity can only be achieved by asking uncomfortable questions

The power of diversity Of all the advisors I sought, Pravin was probably the one who was most unlike me. This I have to admit made me uncomfortable. I suspect I initially avoided or at least procrastinated meeting with him. The very fact that we were so different, thought very differently is what made my meetings however short and far apart, invaluable. To this date, I find myself asking “What would Pravin ask?”

Being yourself Pravin was the living embodiment of being yourself. What you saw is what you got – he made no apologies for the positions he held, which in hindsight all seem tame. Neither did he hesitate to say “I don’t know. I don’t understand it.” Several years after my first meeting, Pravin sought my marketing inputs for one of his startups. His engineering vp had persuaded him to have me come in. He told me “I thought marketing was all fluff and am never sure marketers really do anything.” I refrained from retorting that this was rich coming from a sales guy! The very next morning he called me and said how useful our meeting had been despite his initial skepticism. Despite his multiple successes (he did sell this second startup as well) Pravin’s been the same plain-spoken person with no airs about him. An example well worth emulating.

Thank you Pravin for being the person you are and challenging me on every occasion you’ve had. I’ve learned a great deal and in a small way passing them on to the next generation of entrepreneurs. I’m grateful that I got to know you and to work with you.

This is the third entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series.
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