Rarely do you meet people who, when asked what their driving force has been in life, answer that it’s all about having fun doing what you do. Vijay Ullal(BT-CH, ‘80) is an engineer by education, a leader by profession and a visionary by action.
He has worked in different capacities in companies like Intel and Maxim, and has also led Fairchild through a transformational period. He currently heads Victory Ventures, which invests in upcoming start-ups. Read on to know more about changing markets, on what makes start-ups click and on what insti taught him –
Q. You started off your career at Intel. Can you tell us about your experience there?
A.When I started off, Intel was a relatively small company,with a revenue of around $ 1.5 billion. Today it has a revenue of over $ 50 billion and a market cap of about $ 135 billion. The work was very challenging and interesting as the physics behind semiconductors was not fully understood at the time. But it was a lot of fun and it was the kind of job that I had always wanted. We were building the cutting edge memory technologies of that age. And when you’re building the first of anything, everything breaks, things go wrong and that’s where the fun is. I’ve stayed in semiconductors for a long time and my time at Intel has helped me a lot.
Q. Throughout your career, you’ve worked in varied capacities. What prompted these decisions?
A. I have generally stayed in semiconductors throughout, but I’ve had a unique opportunity in that I’ve focused on many areas. I’ve done R&D, operations, and even sales. Probably the only things I haven’t done are finance and HR. Most people tend to do just one thing, but I’ve been lucky enough to work in almost all aspects of the business. And I think that’s why it was always fun. Most of my decisions were based on whether I would be bored by it or not. Even my current shift into venture funding is because I felt that it would interest me.
Most people tend to do just one thing, but I’ve been lucky enough to work in almost all aspects of the business. And I think that’s why it was always fun.
Q. What was it like, working in a company like Maxim, and contributing to it’s huge growth curve?
A. Frankly, when I joined Maxim, I didn’t expect it grow as much as it did. I had been working in a startup for two years, but it didn’t work out and folded. Its assets were acquired by Maxim, and that’s how I began working there. It was a very small company then, around $50 million, but it grew to $2.5 billion over the next 22 years. I came into the company and found that my experience at the startup had made me far more experienced than others at the company. This helped me contribute a lot to the growth of the company. The interesting thing about Maxim was that the company kept changing. Every 3-5 years, they would change everything about the company, from the products to the people.It was like working for four different companies, and so it was a lot of fun. I’ve always felt more excited working for such a company, where you can actually make an impact, rather than in a big company where you tend to get lost.
Q. What made you take up the Fairchild challenge?
A. Well, I had done everything that I could do at Maxim, and wanted to see if I could run a company. I found that it was not that exciting, as Fairchild was just going along sideways, and was thus very hard to grow. It had a huge surplus of people and letting people go was not something that I enjoyed. The company had not grown for a long time, and all I was able to do is make it more efficient, and maybe add around 25-30% to the market cap. But the semiconductor industry had saturated and I decided that I had to do something different.
Q. How did you get interested in startups and funding them?
A. After Fairchild, I took two months off, trying to figure out what to do next. I got my wife quite worried, because I was walking about in my pajamas, seemingly doing nothing. But I was actually constantly thinking, trying to figure out what to do next. It was then that I came to Bangalore,and delivered the keynote speech at a VLSI conference. And there I met all these small companies and discovered the bustling startup activity in Bangalore and Chennai. I started getting interested and invested in one company. So I tried to see if this could be a career, and I find that I love it! I love talking to entrepreneurs, because they’re very optimistic people and completely believe in their idea. Every company has a new product, and are often working in a space that I hadn’t even thought of. You have to think very hard, and figure out if the company is worth investing in or not. It’s like solving a puzzle.You can’t go by experience, and whatever you do, in the end it might not work out. And that’s what makes it so much fun. I’ve invested in 15 companies in the past one year, and I’ll have to wait and see if they pay off.
I love talking to entrepreneurs, because they’re very optimistic people and completely believe in their idea. Every company has a new product, and are often working in a space that I hadn’t even thought of.
Q.How do you track the progress of all the companies that you are funding?
A. It’s in my head. They all send me reports and if they don’t I go visit them. Once a quarter or so I have a dinner for all the CEO’s of all the companies and most of them show up. They have a great time, they talk to each other discussing problems and try to help each other out. It’s a lot more fun than working in a big company.
Q. The Institute has a great startup culture and it’s been growing very fast. So could you tell all our budding entrepreneurs what you look for in a startup?
A. In my opinion, you have to look for three things. First you have to have a really good team, even if they don’t necessarily have the right experience. But you have to meet the team and make sure they have something special that makes them click. The one thing that must absolutely be there is their complete belief in their idea. If I find that the members of a team are also working part time, then that tells me that they do not fully believe in the strength of their idea. So the commitment from the team, and especially the main founder is the first thing that I look for. Then of course the second criteria is the product – it has to be interesting, and it has to be different. A small company can take on a bigger company and succeed only if their idea is unique. The third point to consider is to check whether you’re going into the right market. If you enter a declining market, then you’re swimming against the tide, and the chances of failure are very high. If you do enter a bad market,then it should be with a product that can completely change the whole landscape. That’s why companies like Ola and Uber have clicked so well – they have completely revamped the taxi market. So a disruptive product can transform a bad market, but otherwise it’s better to go into good markets.
Q. Could you tell us a bit about your insti life?
A. Well, frankly I did everything but study in insti. I played tennis, and was also interested in painting and sketching. I used to debate, play every possible game I could and in general had a lot of fun. And I have a pretty unique last name, so that became my nickname too!
Q. Is there any incident from your time here that you still remember fondly?
A. There are many, and I’ll tell you one of the milder ones. In those days we had three quizzes and then the finals, so we were always in between one exam or the other. I remember that one day, when none of us could take it anymore, one guy went and threw iron rods and chains into the power lines! He shorted the whole generator out and we ended up not having the quiz the next day. I don’t know if that’ll work today, but the 60’s and 70’s were different. They were very rebellious times.
Q. What has insti taught you?
A. I have learnt more from my friends than from anybody else. Even today, my closest friends are those that I made here. We drew inspiration from each other, and I’m sure that this is something that all of you guys experience. Some of the students in our class were absolutely brilliant. There were some who could think at twice the rate you could, while others would urge you to question things that you had taken for granted. So we would sit up late at night, and discuss and argue about various issues.This is an experience that you get in very few other places – maybe Stanford and Harvard – because you need to have a well-rounded set of classmates. In those days people came to IIT not because all of them wanted to become engineers, but because they wanted a good education. So you had a wide spectrum of people – people who have gone on to do everything from film and music to law and medicine. And the interaction that you have with these people in these transformative years is invaluable. I’ve kept in touch with all my friends even after 35 years, and the great thing is that each time we meet, we’re exactly like how we were on the last day of college.
I’ve kept in touch with all my friends even after 35 years, and the great thing is that each time we meet, we’re exactly like how we were on the last day of college.
Q. What do you have to say to the students here at IIT?
A. The one thing that you guys need to remember is that India is much more liberal now, when compared to the socialist environment that we had back then. When I graduated the only way that you could start a company was by taking the government’s permission. I remember going to the ministry of small industries and being astonished at the number of restrictions imposed on what kind of company I could start. Today the environment is much more conducive, as is clear from the opportunities that you guys have, like CFI, Nirmaan and the Incubation Centre.
If you want to start a company, start it here in India. Here is where everything is happening. This is the exciting part of the world.
My advice to the students is to make full use of these opportunities and to not be afraid. We grew up being quite scared and cautious, when actually this is the age where you have nothing to lose. And do not be afraid to make mistakes, because you will come out of them having learnt a lot more than others who had taken a more conservative route. So if you want a job, companies like Microsoft and Google might appear great, but if you want a career, you need to take risks. And the younger you are, the more capable you are of handling the risk. And another thing, if you want to start a company, start it here in India. Here is where everything is happening. This is the exciting part of the world. So stay here, build a company here and in 10 years you will be more successful than any other company set up in the US. It’s a great time to be in IIT and to be in India, so take the risk and make full use of the opportunities in front of you!