Life of Sabeer

    Vinay Kamath
    Swetha Kannan
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“Nine out of 10 VCs will not put money in new ventures anymore. The Silicon Valley model has changed.” SABEER BHATIA

The aha moment for what Sabeer Bhatia says is going to be his next big idea came when he found his parents always scrambling to get themselves a US number as soon as they landed at the airport. “In the US, it is impossible to find a local SIM card; the concept of prepaid too does not exist there. I have the solution to solve their problem,” says an exultant Bhatia.

We knew lunch and conversation with the bald 43-year-old founder of the world’s first free email service, Hotmail, would be a stimulating affair. Bhatia is in Chennai to unveil yet another of his ideas, a software and services company, AMP, which will manage the back office for large real-estate players in the US. We meet Bhatia at the coffee shop of the GRT Grand hotel on the fringe of the city’s buzzing shopping district of T.Nagar.

Jaxtr for the traveller

All it needed was a question to Bhatia on what’s the next big innovation from him, and he launches excitedly into explaining Jaxtr, pre-paid SIM cards for multi-country use. He explains that the biggest bugbear for frequent international travellers is either the high cost of roaming charges or the irritation of switching SIMs. “Even millionaires don’t want to pay high roaming charges,” says Bhatia, laughing.

The Jaxtr $20 pre-paid SIM card will come with 60 minutes of talk time, which travellers can soon use across four countries, seamlessly. “We will give you a permanent number; one SIM card on the fly assigns you the local number in four countries as soon as you land. So whether you are in the US or the UK, you get a local number automatically with the same SIM card,” he says.

Jaxtr has taken Bhatia and his 100-member team, spread across the US and India, over five years and “millions of dollars” to develop as the company will be a telecom carrier with its own switching equipment to ‘land’ calls in a country. Jaxtr will tie up with local telecom networks to take the call to a number. The soon-to-be launched service, he says, has tied up with networks in four countries; but by the end of 2013, Bhatia promises to have signed on 30 countries. One SIM card with 30 numbers, which will work on local networks as soon as a traveller lands. When in India, we ask him? Well, like all things, it will take time, he points out, adding that he’s applied for a licence.

Property platform

Bhatia, who’s based in San Francisco, has teams of people working across various Indian cities, developing software for different industries.

For a man who grew up in the neighbouring city of Bangalore, this is Bhatia’s first visit to Chennai. Strangely, he speaks a smattering of Tamil and not Kannada, thanks to his Tamil-speaking ayah. “Also, my dad was with the Madras Sappers and spoke Tamil in the regiment,” says Bhatia.

What’s brought him to Chennai is his company AMP which employs around 60 developers for now. Providing services for the real-estate industry in the US, AMP has developed a cloud-based platform that will enable large real-estate companies to manage their properties efficiently. “What we do is we extract information from accounting and leasing systems and provide a platform of collaboration and business intelligence. For a property management company with 100 properties and several hundred leases it’s a nightmare to manage. Our online software provides a usable format for them.”

We’re too busy talking and realise we haven’t ordered lunch, and the waiters too don’t bother us. Bhatia settles for a quick buffet lunch while we order a grilled sandwich and coffee to follow.

To Hotmail, with nostalgia

The stories around Bhatia’s rise to fame with his Hotmail free mail service are legion. We ask him what the tipping point was in developing Hotmail. He reminiscences: “I had already had the idea to do something on the Internet for a personalised web-based database software where you could store any content. The company where we were working (with his co-founder Jack Smith) had put a firewall around the corporate intranet. That made it impossible for us to access our personal email account. It occurred to us that we could access any web page from anywhere in the world but we couldn’t access our personal email ID in the office. What if we made email available on the Web? That was the genesis of hotmail. Our aha moment.”

Bhatia, went on, of course, to sell Hotmail to Microsoft for $400 million in 1998 and was a millionaire at 28. He stayed on with Microsoft for a year or so before he quit.

“Why would you want to compete with Microsoft, a giant even then. Selling was the right thing to do. But I would have done things differently had I remained at Microsoft. I would have probably seen how the market developed for social media. I probably would have made hotmail more social from the very beginning, as opposed to keeping it as an email only service.” But Bhatia is pretty pleased with what Microsoft has done to Hotmail with the new Outlook-like interface. “I still have a Hotmail ID… I love using it,” he emphasises.

Beckoning bright ideas

Did he burn up all that cash he got from Microsoft? Bhatia grins. That’s a lot of cash to blow up, he says. After quitting MS, he took a year off, travelling. “I thought I would retire. I played golf; travelled to the south of France, London, South Africa, Australia, Brazil, Canada…I travelled for a year. I was 30 then. I got very bored. You would think that is bliss, but it is so far from the truth. I was depressed. I had nothing to look forward to. All other friends my age, colleagues, were moving ahead in life. I would have grown old had I remained in that state. There was no stimulation. I realised I will never retire again. Now, my work keeps me going.”

And how! Bhatia has a clutch of companies that he oversees: travel portal Arzoo, voice conferencing company Sabse Bolo, and the new ’uns in the basket now. He follows a distributed leadership model. Hire capable people and empower them. “They don’t invest in the business, but I give them equity. I let them feel it’s their own company. Every week I have a call with them.”

The flip side of being Sabeer Bhatia is that venture funds are not keen on lending to him. “They tell me I have my own money to invest!” Also, there is no venture in venture funding anymore, laments Bhatia. “Most of the VCs look for more mature companies that are already generating revenues. They don’t want to take a risk with new ideas. Nine out of 10 VCs will not put money in new ventures anymore. The Silicon Valley model has changed.”

Which is why Bhatia has taken it upon himself to fund bright ideas. His ultimate aim is to create a massive incubator that will provide budding companies with real-estate, power, Internet access and computing facilities. It will also fund them and pitch them to VCs. Bhatia has already invested in three companies in Bangalore — Deck India, Eunomia and Instacall.

“This is the best way to pay back to the country,” says Bhatia, who studied two years at BITS Pilani before transferring to the California Institute of Technology. Later, he did his Master's degree at Stanford. He even registered for a Ph.D there before taking a leave of absence.

“And I haven’t gone back since then; the Master’s pretty good,” signs off Bhatia, who turns 44 tomorrow, with a broad grin.

(This article was published on December 28, 2012)
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