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Sabeer Bhatia’s journey from $400 mln Microsoft deal to IoT for agriculture

Sabeer Bhatia’s rise to prominence is part of “technopreneur” folklore.

At age 19, he arrived in Los Angeles with $250 in his pocket. He talked his way to secure $300,000 funding to set up a company that was to launch Hotmail, among the first web-based free email at the time.

When Hotmail users touched 8 million, the industry began to take notice. Soon he had suitors, Bill Gates of the Microsoft kind being the obvious one. The first offer was $50-60 million, which he promptly rejected.

Following several rounds of nerve-wracking negotiations, the deal was sealed for $400 million. Sabeer Bhatia found himself in elite company. His Indian army captain father and banker mother couldn’t have asked for more.

Hotmail to Gmail

When I caught up with Sabeer over breakfast in Dubai recently, his plate was quite literally full. He graciously offered me to join and asked for green vegetable omelet to be piled on. It’s the appetite that defines success after all.

“Where do I start?” I pondered. Sabeer’s boardroom tussles with Microsoft and the taming of a certain Big B are very well-documented. I didn’t want to ask him an obvious question.

So I popped up the next most obvious one. “Going by the way Hotmail has progressed since you gave it away, do you regret the decision?”

“No, not at all. I think it was the right decision at the time,” he replied. He was aware that no one can predict the future and continues to believe so. “We had a little upswing at the time but there was a dotcom bust soon after,” he said.

I wanted Sabeer to elaborate, so posed the same question differently. “Would you have continued the same strategy if you were still in charge?” I didn’t expect Sabeer to give much away. But he did.

“The only thing I may have done differently is not allowed to let Google get a foothold with what they did with Gmail,” he says. I was delighted that “my headline” was in the kitty. But the conversation wasn’t over.

As I nodded vigorously, Sabeer went on: “In the long run, getting a large user base was still the right thing to do even though monetizing Hotmail was becoming a challenge for Microsoft”.

“But I would have still continued to give the international users lot of space then there would not have been room for Google to come in with Gmail,” Sabeer was loud and clear.

The takeaway for me was that level-headedness must go side-by-side ambition. At a more mundane level, I imagined, if that deal hadn’t been struck, lot of us would still be using Hotmail.

 

Sabeer Bhatia announcing the launch of his venture Jaxtrsms in Mumbai on November 22, 2011. (AFP)

Future of technology

It was established by now that, like any worldly-wise tech entrepreneur, Sabeer isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. He has found a way to figure out a need and is willing to invest his energy to find solutions.

Sabeer has indeed benefited from the burst of technology witnessed in recent decades. He also happened to be at the right at the right time.

But I didn’t want to leave him in his comfort zone. “Does technology really reach the needy? Is it creating enough jobs?”

He seemed prepared to answer the question. “Technology has, in the last 20 years, completely transformed every industry that we know,” he said.

Then came a rather startling statement: “Software is a manifestation of human thought. And I think it’s right. Ideas are worth much more than assets,” he said.

What next and where?

It was time to ask him about his next big idea.

“There are two big things that I’m doing right now. One is using the internet of things (IOT) to make a meaningful difference in the lives of people. One specific vertical area we’ve identified is agriculture,” he said.

As expected, he has equipped himself with data that suggest potential for growth as well as opportunity to build market share. “IBM estimates that IoT will enable farmers to increase food production by 70 percent by the year 2050,” a document shared by his team says.

And Sabeer has no doubt that the gains in productivity can be achieved through the use of technology. We also live in a world of collaboration though and he is seeking partners in the Middle East.

“I’m looking at potential partnerships here, investments here and opportunities here in the Middle East. I think one big opportunity here is to bring education to the youth of this part of the world,” Sabeer Bhatia signs off with a message.

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