As one founder-turned-chairman of a large asset management company said: “It is more interesting to look at why an organization stays at the top than how it got there in the first place.”
And this challenge of staying success has only become harder over the past few decades when viewed as turnover from the Fortune 500 list of largest US-listed corporations*.
Some, however, are able to walk the tightrope of relevance and growth. One being The Indus Entrepreneurs (Tie), a US-based non-profit organization that hosts what it claims is “the world’s biggest conference for entrepreneurs” in California this week.
The 3,000 expected delegates at Tiecon will hear a roster of successful businesspeople talk about the three hot sectors of the day in Silicon Valley: big data, mobility and software for networks and storage, while a second day is about the ‘how-tos’ of being an entrepreneur, including a talk by Arvind Sodhani, chief executive of Intel Capital, the $10bn corporate venturing unit of the eponymous US-listed chip maker.
There are plenty of parallel sessions covering the top 50 entrepreneurial companies from around the world where Tie is active, women-led businesses and encouraging young people to develop their business plans. The whole event is designed to help its attendees become, or be better, entrepreneurs with networking on how to find mentors, co-founders, employees and markets.
Paul Singh, co-convener of Tiecon 2013 and founder of Documents.me, his fourth start-up, said: “Tiecon is a start-up with a fixed product delivery date. There are 200 volunteers working for four months and more than 100 on the days itself to build this product – from content management to sales and marketing to sponsorship – for 3000 people.”
But surrounding the whole event is a spiritual concept of giving back and single-mindedness of purpose behind Tie.
Singh said: “We are a non-profit whose mission is to enable the Tie ecosystem to create more wealth. Tie fosters the spirit of entrepreneurialism. It has been the same since it started and is etched into our logo.”
In its 10th anniversary booklet published in 2002, Tie said it “was born in the spiritual concept of ‘giving back’” and thanked its sponsors, founders and volunteers, which its calls its “foot soldiers” and its biggest assets.
Suhas Patil, Tie’s first president and founder of Cirrus Logic, a Nasdaq-listed fabless chip company used by Apple, by email said:
“Tie is one of a few if not the only such organization where the successful and the aspiring entrepreneurs come together and the successful join as charter members to give back to the society by inspiring, helping and guiding the aspiring next generation of entrepreneurs to succeed.
“They help set the value system of the future entrepreneurs to work ethically and give back to the society when they are successful.”
These values were set by looking at how Indians were perceived and how to change this perception.
Kailash Joshi, TiE’s third president and the first person of non-white ethnic origin to become general manager of a division at computer company IBM, said by being “very aware” of Indians’ perceived “character flaws, of not being punctual, not returning calls and tolerance for corruption, we [made sure TiE] had a very strong code of conduct, which was duly documented throughout.”
This philosophical framework, as laid out in its 10-year booklet, describes how people should work to “create an open, inclusive and transparent organization; provide positive leadership role models; emphasize value-creation through informed entrepreneurship; maintain high ethical standards; display rigorous, intellectually-honest behavior; persue a modern, scientific and forward-looking approach; remain socially responsible; do not tolerate pettiness, divisiveness and corruption; and strive to remain an idea- and value-driven organization”.
A second-tier of the philosophy brought by its founders added that “thou shalt return your fellow Tie member’s call, no back-biting, and that we are here to give not receive and add to Tie’s reputation not take from it”.
Vish Mishra, Tie’s sixth president and a partner at venture capital firm Clearstone, added: “Tie was a Silicon Valley phenomenon; we could not have started Tie anywhere else because people would have been suspicious of why we wanted to do good. We are inclusive for all but 70% of Tiecon attendees are still from south Asia.
“By dispelling the notion you have to be born into wealth or a business family to be successful we have through Tie’s chapters exported this ‘American Dream’ to everywhere there is an Indus diaspora.
“We [founders of Tie] all came from Indian subcontinent [which includes Pakistan and Bangladesh], directly or via Africa and England, and looked to create a forum or society and share our experiences and ideas and help the next generation.
“We became close personal friends as our families grew up close together but our focus was on business building, giving back and wealth creation. We were the ultimate social network.”
These original founders, which also includes AJ Patel, regarded by his cofounders as the kinetic force behind its initial meetings and now trying to protect wildlife in Africa, and Kanwal Reikhi, have mentored thousands of entrepreneurs and helped break racial and class barriers holding back south Asians from gaining funding and support.
Patil said: “Efforts of the early charter members resulted in visible success of aspiring entrepreneurs. Success breeds success and the momentum was set very early in the history of Tie.”
Patil financial underwrote the first Tiecon in 1994 and it was a success in building a stream of people able and wanting to be senior managers or entrepreneurs.
Research for Kauffman Foundation by academic Vivek Wadha found between 1995 and 2005 that Indians founded 26% of science and technology companies, which was more than the next four groups from the UK, China, Taiwan and Japan combined.
In 2005, these companies founded or run by non-American-born people generated $52bn in revenue and employed 450,000 workers.
But there were still barriers from getting funding or support from outside of the Indian community when Tie was developing.
Reikhi, who merged his company Excelan with computer network equipment maker Novell after becoming the first Indo-American to take a venture-backed company public on the Nasdaq stock exchange, said even after mentoring their business plans and providing advice, “we were still sending them on to VCs [venture capitalists] who continued to turn them down.
“Nothing had changed for the community so Suhas and I funded them ourselves – in 1995 I seeded seven and all made it.”
These financial successes and a litany of successful entrepreneurs-turned-VCs, such as Vinod Kosla, means conditions are very different, although Mishra pointed out in an guest comment in news provider San Jose Mercury News at the start of the year that only 12% of technology directors are from Asian backgrounds even if they make up more half of IT workers in Silicon Valley.
This has brought into focus Tie’s ongoing relevance. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists said the organization has gone in a wave of relevance but after a dip in the mid-2000s was trying hard to add more value to the ecosystem again.
Reikhi, Tie’s second president and the prime mover behind the organisation’s decision to open international chapters that now cover 17 countries, added: “Now, some of the fervor is gone because we were successful.
“So Tie reinvents the role it plays and the two-year rolling president keeps it fresh and prevents it being someone’s sandbox. The first question a president asks is: ‘Are we still relevant? And how do we keep people engaged (sponsors, volunteers and members)?’ This questioning has led to Tiecon being reconfigured this year.”
It is tightrope all entrepreneurs walk, knowing when to bow out, but it is a question Tie continues to positively answer so far.
* ‘What Does Fortune 500 Turnover Mean?’, by Dane Stangler and Sam Arbesman at Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Published June 2012.