Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Profile: Desh Deshpande

Business India
, January 24-February 4, 2001

Lighting up

Shivanand Kanavi

“Serial entrepreneurship is not interesting to me", sounds facetious coming from Gururaj 'Desh' Deshpande, if you do not know the context in which he said it. After all, he is one of the most celebrated ser­ial entrepreneurs among Indians in the US. "If serial entre­preneurship means doing the same thing again and again, then it does not interest me. Making some money every time you have an idea, which you build to a certain extent and then sell out, is not my game. Big-time wealth creation is in building a company as a long-term play," he says. "I am not deprecating the value of that kind of serial entre­preneurship, may be one's capabilities end with idea gen­eration and taking it forward to a certain extent, then it is better to sell out," adds he.

Sycamore is not a hot startup any more. It was one or two years ago. Today, it has over 750 employees and nine offices in US, and seven international offices in UK, Ger­many, France, Sweden, South Korea, Japan and Canada. They notched up revenues of over $100 million in the quarter ending 30 October 2000. Though the stock value has fallen from the astronomical valuations 10 months ago, and the market cap has dropped from $55 billion to about $15 billion, it still trades at a P/E multiple of around 450. (Compare that to the P/E of Cisco: 81, Juniper: 275, Nortel: 50, and Lucent: 16.5.)

Vinod Khosla, partner in Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers, and another doyen among Indian entrepreneurs, agrees with Desh: "A decade or two later will we (Indians) make a difference to the economy by building a Sun, a Microsoft, an Intel, a Dell or an Oracle? Will we change the technol­ogy scenario? That is the crucial question to me. It looks like with Sycamore, Desh wants to build such a company."

We went to Boston to see just how Desh is building his company and how he has achieved what he has. We reached Boston in the middle of the night after a tiring trans-Atlantic flight and hassles at JFK. However, the lim­ousine driver taking us from Boston's Logan Airport to the Radisson Hotel at Chelmsford, Massachusetts made our day. He seemed very well informed about Sycamore. "It seems to be a really good company. I ferry around lots of people. Many of them come for interviews and they all say they want to work with Desh. He must be a very nice and smart guy to attract people like that. I have not met him but people say he is very simple and accessible. Till the papers in Boston wrote about him, we did not know such a wealthy guy lived among us," he added. Just to test him a bit we asked: "What is Sycamore into?" "Oh, Optical Net­working, where they use lasers and stuff like that," he replied. When we told him we were visiting the company and meeting Desh the next day, he was thrilled. We had a similar experience two more times the next day - at a small electronics store near the hotel and with another cab dri­ver who took us to Desh's house in Andover. To have a rep­utation among your peers, investment bankers, employees, customers is one thing. But to have it in the community around you, despite being low profile, speaks volumes about the person.

In every which way Desh looks and sounds like an unlikely candidate for a high-powered entrepreneur. He is firm in his views, quick and clear thinking but never throws his weight around. Desh comes from a modest fam­ily in Karnataka. His father served in the government's labour department and there's been no history of business in the family. Desh's education took place in really small towns of Karnataka like Sankeshwar, Dandeli and finally he joined the well-known National College in Bangalore.

After his BTech in electrical engineering from IIT Madras in 1973, Desh had a job offer from Telco at Pune which included a princely salary of Rs500 a month. Mean­while he was admitted with a full scholarship to the Uni­versity of New Brunswick. So he dropped the idea of joining Telco and went to New Brunswick. He did his MS there on microwaves and dielectric wave-guides (optic fibres are also dielectric wave guides).

Desh thought he found his true vocation in teaching.

But teaching needed a PhD, so he joined the University of Queens, Canada. After his PhD adviser Dr Peter Brack­ett, had joined Codex, a startup which was not doing well Motorola took it over and Brackett asked Desh to join him there as head of engineering. Desh liked the idea; they were supposed to build modems and networking products for Motorola.

By 1984, Desh pretty much took Codex from zero dol­lars to $100 million in revenues and employee strength rose from 20 to 400 people. This was a very important learning period. Desh participated in marketing, sales as well as engineering. On the personal front, in 1980 Desh married Jayashree Kulkarni, a physicist from IIT Madras. Jayashree had switched over to computer science and was working in Toronto, Canada, after her MS. "We did not know each other at IIT Madras, since I entered IIT Madras after Desh graduated, but our mothers were classmates and the families knew each other in Hubli," says Jayashree.

In 1984, the entrepreneurial itch started. Canada was not the place to launch hi-tech startups, so Desh and Jayashree decided to move to the US. Motorola offered him the choice to move to the Silicon Valley or to Boston. Desh chose Boston and worked for three more years at Codex waiting for his green card. But the pull of entrepre­neurship was too strong. Local area networks (LAN) were coming into vogue and Motorola was not interested in it. One of the possibilities was building high-speed LANS using optical fibre. Thus Desh got together with a friend to develop Fibre Distributed Data Interface. They pooled in $10,000 each and started working. Desh still had his job at Motorola, so he would go to the startup at 4 am in the morning and at 8 am would proceed to attend his duties at Motorola!

Then the Black Monday of September 1987 took place.

The stockmarket crashed by over 23 per cent in one day. Prospects for funding vanished and the $20,000 kitty also dried up. Desh's partner, whose wife was expecting and who was working full-time in the startup, had to quit. That was the end of the first effort.

As soon as he got his green card, Desh gave up his job at Motorola and started Coral Networks. Desh had enough savings to pull on for 18 months with Spartan living. It took a while to get seed funding. Finally they raised $4 mil­lion and hired 20-25 people. At this stage, a dispute arose between the two founders. According to Desh: "It was easy to come up with well-engineered routers that were five times faster than those available and it was difficult but possible to get them to be eight times faster but 10 times faster was almost impossible at that stage." Coral had kept the target of producing 10 times faster routers. Desh realised the market was ready to gobble up five times faster routers right away. So his view was that they should be pro­duced and sold while working on eight times faster routers. But his partner had a different view - he wanted 10 times faster or bust. He also thought it doable and asked for three weeks time. However, three weeks went by and then another two weeks and another four weeks and still they were nowhere near. Desh saw that the two views could not coexist, and walked out. "It gives me no pleasure to say now that I was right, but I was. After 18 months and $12 million more, Coral was still nowhere near the product, and finally it was sold for $15 million," recalls Desh.

However, Desh faced a fresh problem. In order to raise their two kids, Jayashree had given up her job. Now both were jobless. Desh went to India in 1990 for a visit and his parents were scared. But in his own words: "It was very hard to work for anybody else but yourself."

When Desh started Cascade Communications it took time to get seed funding. "In fact, the scariest moment was when Ravi (family name for Desh), came home one day and told the kids not to get hurt while playing, since the health insurance had run out," recalls Jayashree. Soon things started turning around. Desh sums up the Cascade story: "Ed Anderson, a VC I had known from my first attempt in Fibre Distributed Data Interface (FDDI), called me up one day and asked: 'what are you doing nowadays?' I had a lot of credibility due to what I had achieved in Motorola, though I had lost a bit due to the failure of Coral Network. We had lunch and I explained my idea to him. He was impressed and two weeks later he wrote a cheque for $125,000. And that is how we got started at Cascade. In '91 June we got funded and in nine months, by '92 March, we rolled out our first product. We had a good engineering team. Dan Smith joined us in June '92 as CEO. Till then I was the CEO. He had more business experience. Our rev­enues grew from $ 700,000 the first year to $330 million in '97 and the company grew to 1,000 people. We had the IPO in 1994 and from an offer price of $15 the stock went up at one time to $540. We even reached a market cap of $10 billion, which came down later. We had 60-70 per cent of market share and in July 1997 Ascend acquired Cascade for $3.7 billion. Ascend itself was acquired by Lucent later in 1998 for nearly $20 billion and analysts said about $17 billion of that value was contributed by Cascade acquisition!

Desh then spent a few months with his family. He began mentoring other entrepreneurs - 20-30 entrepre­neurs were visiting his home every week in those days ­and even agreed to become chairman of one of their star­tups, Cimaron Communications. This became a huge suc­cess later on. But soon the entrepreneurial itch started again. He thought: 'What if we could create tonnes of band­width on demand, since the New Economy is going to be driven by bandwidth?' In a Christmas party hosted by Matrix Partners, a well-known Boston-based VC fund, Desh met Rick Barry and Eric Swanson from MIT, who came with a deep knowledge of optics. Soon Sycamore Networks was born. The Cascade alumni were full of entrepreneurial energy. Already 18 new startups had come out of former cascade employees. When Desh started Sycamore with Berry and Swanson, several people from the Cascade team came and joined Desh. The rest is history. Within nine months they rolled out their first product and signed up their first customer. The IPO in October 1999 was a resound­ing success - a stock offered at $34 was listed at $210. Today, when dozens of companies including those who thought it all hype, are talking about intelligent optical networking, Sycamore is clearly recognised as the pioneer.

Why the name Sycamore? "Finding the right name is an art. I don't know how to do it. But I know the right one when I see it. Generally the name should have nothing to do with what you are doing at the moment, so that when you want to broaden your business, you don't get tied down. If one succeeds, of course, everybody will say it was a very good choice," says Desh tongue in cheek. "However, one point to remember is that the Sycamore tree, like Red­wood and Sequoia, lives for a long time - more than 500 years." So, let us keep our fingers crossed and wish that this serial entrepreneur par excellence will create something long lasting this time around.

Desh and Jayashree, both alumni of IIT Madras have promised $100 million to their alma mater to fund research over the next 20 years. But Desh is not ignoring his imme­diate environment in Boston either, where he wants to make MIT more responsive to industry, now that he has joined its governing board .