B.V. Jagdeesh on “Startup Leadership Lessons Learned”

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 4 Finding your Niche, Events, First Office, Founder Story

Mr. B.V. Jagadeesh gave a great talk on “Lessons Learned Starting, Leading, and Succeeding at Multiple Startups” tonight at the GITPRO meeting.  Mr. Jagadeesh co-founded Fouress (a bootstrapped consulting firm), co-founded Exodus Communications, was CEO at NetScalar (and stayed on after  its acquisition by Citrix as a VP/GM),  was  president and CEO of 3Leaf Systems, and is today  president and CEO of Virtela.  He is an accomplished entrepreneur (more details on LinkedIn and CrunchBase) and he gave a very candid talk on his entrepreneurial journey starting with his arrival in the United States in the early 1980′s to work at Novell.

I have had the privilege of hearing experienced entrepreneurs talk about lessons learned but it’s normally been a small group, a half dozen or dozen folks in a conference room or 15 or 20 around a Bootstrappers Breakfast table. This had that same sense of practical candor but there were perhaps a hundred to a hundred and twenty folks in the Oak Room.  It was a candid an insightful talk punctuated by frequent questions from the audience.  What follows are a few stories that I thought had a particular emotional resonance with the early stages of a startup.

He came from a family of teachers and professors of modest means. They were delighted when he graduated with bachelors degree in engineering and went to Bombay to earn a Masters degree. When he  was able to get a job in America it was unprecedented success. His new job allowed him to buy a used car which was one of the first owned by his family.

This made for a difficult phone call when he called his father to tell him he was going to quit his job to start a company. He had tried to work on it on the side with his future co-founder but came to understand if it was going to move forward he would have to focus on it.

“How much will this new job pay?” his father asked.

“It’s a startup, once we get clients I will be able to make some money” was Mr. Jagadeesh’s answer.

Needless to say his family thought he was making a mistake, but his calculation was that he had enough money saved to live simply for a year, he would pursue his dream of his own company and if it didn’t work out he would go back to being an engineer for a while.

Exodus went on to spearhead the concept of offsite co-location datacenters, changing the model from on-site data center served by an ISP. It enabled a number of companies large and small to establish a significant presence on the Internet.

His tenure at NetScalar saw the company narrowly avoid shutdown and go on to establish a  new paradigm for Internet connectivity management. He had to prepare two speeches for the employees, one where he announced that the company was getting shut down, and one where they announced  new round of funding (from Sequoia as it turns out). He was able to give the second speech and returned 8x to Sequoia when Citrix acquired NetScalar two and half years later.

He had to give the other speech a few years later as CEO of 3Leaf Systems when a key ASIC needed another spin and he was not able to convince investors to help. His point was that in both cases you had to prepare for the likely outcomes and take responsibility as CEO for what happens, doing the best that you can for your employees and investors.

One theme he stressed repeatedly was the need to impose the discipline on yourself and your team to prepare and act with the professionalism that your competitors are going to bring to the market. He talked about one team that he is advising that has met with some initial success. They realized that treating their offices as dorm rooms had been OK when there were a few founders, but now that they were growing and had two dozen  employees they needed to establish a more professional tone–without spending a lot of money. So they spent a few thousand dollars at IKEA and held furniture assembly parties. The new look changed both internal attitudes toward the workplace and those of  customers and potential investors who visited their offices.

He talked about volunteering to help the IEEE Silicon Valley put on events and conferences while he was still working at Novell. They met more than two decades ago in the Oak Room where he was speaking tonight .  By volunteering to find speakers he was able to have conversations with managers and executives at many companies that allowed him to develop a network that helped out as he was growing Exodus and NetScalar.  He felt a sense a coming full circle: he was now the invited speaker in the same room where he first started out as a volunteer.

It was a candid and reflective talk, Mr. Jagadeesh not only offered a wealth  of practical advice, answering a number of very good questions,  but he also communicated a fundamental sense of what it means to be a CEO: you need to take action and take responsibility for outcome of your actions.

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