With so many entrepreneurs looking to get a head start in countries like the UAE, some of the most important criteria for creating a sound business plan can get overlooked. Hari Kesavan, an American entrepreneur and founder of UniPropitia, gives his insights on entrepreneurship and shares his story with Joumana Saad – one full of struggle, failure and success.
In an effort to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs, most speakers will usually start by telling their audience about the liberating experience that starting a business brings. Hari Kesavan, an American entrepreneur and speaker, takes a quite different approach. One of the first things he warns aspiring entrepreneurs of, is the responsibility that comes with your business. Just like a breadwinner is responsible for his family, an entrepreneur must handle his employees and customers the same way. Hari draws life lessons and examples from his own career, and divulges the good, the bad and the ugly, in an effort to introduce these individuals to the reality of entrepreneurship.
Hari has founded and sold two successful companies in the US. The first was a small company, InterContinental Software Solutions, launched during the software boom. He built the company to a certain level and sold it when he realised it was just offering services without building anything tangible. Out of that experience he learned of certain market gaps which inspired him to find Percipia in 2000, his most successful venture.
Percipia was one of the first of its kind to produce unique IP telephony technology software solutions for the hospitality, higher education and health care industries in the US. The company went public through a reverse merger in 2004, later merged with a Singaporean company in 2007, and finally was completely acquired by a multi-billion dollar Japenese congolmerate in 2008.
Hari also founded a company in India that did not succeed and he says the experience has taught him a lot in terms of choosing the right people to work with. Failure, he says, is a word that is not as buzz worthy as success in the entrepreneurial community, but yet is as equally important in terms of experience and personal development.
“The lesson learned for me was that you can fail, but don’t lose your confidence in the process. You can lose money, and certainly some relationships, but you can’t afford to lose your morale. In the end, you actually need to gain some wisdom. If I have to do this all over again what would I do right? If you can’t extract that life lesson, which no MBA will teach, then it’s not worth the failure. So, you need to fail but recover from it very quickly, and apply that lesson in the next venture.”
Another key lesson Hari emphasises to entrepreneurs, is to always have a long-term plan that involves selling your business, even during the early stages of developing your business idea and plan. “What I learned from my experience is that you make more money by selling companies than building companies. It is very natural for us to think that way in the US. In places like Silicon Valley, when a budding entrepreneur comes out with something new, immediately people ask who will buy this?” he says. “Yes you have a passion for taking the market by storm, but at some point that has to stop and your objective has to be what I am getting, what is my family getting, what are my other shareholders and employees getting and how do I exit and move on to the next thing.”
For Hari, making the transition from employee to entrepreneur came when his manager identified his techno-commercial skills in spite of being a hard core scientist. He told Hari bluntly that he did not belong there, and suggested he should aspire to become an entrepreneur. That bold statement put everything into perspective, as Hari began to think about things in a new way.
Finding that winning business idea, is something that can take years and should be done on a part-time basis after work and on weekends. “It’s just as important as doing an MBA; You need to sit at home, connect to the net, read the books, talk to people and network. If you take this idea into a fruition stage, at the end of the day will people be willing to buy it?” Once that paper concept has been perfected Hari stresses the need to turn it into something tangible that people can touch and feel. “Just because you reach a prototype stage, doesn’t mean you’re ready to start. You still need to look for a customer. The moment you find your first customer that will be the safest time to quit your job and start,” he says.
Although Hari initially chose to relocate to Dubai for personal reasons, he tells me he doesn’t look back. The move led him to finally create a socially responsible venture that would allow him to using his experience and knowledge to give back. After first working as a COO for a small technology company, he decided to start UniPropitia, an advisory firm that specialises in guiding companies, entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs from the pre-start to launch to growth, and from growth to exit stages. The firm holds educational sessions on demystifying entrepreneurship for college students and corporate employees with an entrepreneurial itch. UniPropitia also helps entrepreneurs with funding, and specialises in advising companies on merger and acquisitions.
As SMEs become more informed about the importance and value of corporate governance, more and more are turning to experts who can guide them on basic principles such as accounting, advisory boards, transactions and documentation and so on. This is especially important for companies that are looking to be sold, and equally important for startups who are seeking funding.
Besides funding, Hari sees lack of focus as one of the main challenges for SMEs and entrepreneurs in this region. “A lot of people have not thought about why they are doing what they are doing. Out of all the companies we meet, 50% are in that boat. There isn’t a well thought our clear strategy or measurement to assess how their company is doing and where they are going,” he says.
On the upside, he says a key benefit of operating in this region, is the ability of being recognised. Compared to more competitive markets like the US, entrepreneurs who stand out from the crowd here have a good chance of going far. The key is finding ways to launch and develop new markets in new economies like the UAE. “Entrepreneurs should be looking around the world seeing what’s unique that’s hiding in a closet and think about how they can bring it here and create a new market that will change the landscape in five years. Those things are becoming possible today, they weren’t possible ten years back.”
Hari is a seasoned serial entrepreneur and technology executive with over 20 years of experience in the technology industry.
Hari was the Senior Vice President of Emerging Business & Technologies at NTT DoCoMo’s subsidiaries in the United States. Hari has founded two successful technology companies over the last 12 years. Hari was the Founder, CEO & CTO of Percipia, Inc in Columbus, Ohio and InterContinental Software Solutions in the United States and India. Percipia was a pioneer in launching the first IP Telephony solution from Cisco to the hospitality market globally. Hari grew Percipia from a small technology startup to a publicly traded company.
Prior to his entrepreneurial stint, Hari was a Senior Scientist in GEC Picker International (now Phillips Medical Systems) in Cleveland, Ohio. Hari was later promoted to lead the International Business Division in Asia Pacific region for Picker.
Rushika Bhatia Editor
Rushika Bhatia is one of the region’s leading commentators on business and current affairs issues. She is the Editor of SME Advisor magazine - the flagship title of CPI Business. She is passionate about infographics – with special emphasis on data, research and statistics. Rushika has a Bachelor’s Degree from Indiana University, USA and is also CIMA qualified.