MARCH 31, 2002
 Cover Story
 Personal Finance
 Case Game
 Back of the Book
The Online Best Employers Package
Didn't get enough in print of the BT-Hewitt Best Employers in India survey? No problem. We've put together an exclusive online package that takes you deep inside the top 10 companies. The reports look at everything—people practices, compensation strategies, leadership styles-that makes these companies great places to work in.

Stanley Fischer Unplugged
He has the rare distinction of having advised through the half-a-dozen economic crises of the 90s. But now economist Stanley Fischer is calling it quits at the International Monetary Fund, and joining Citicorp as Vice Chairman. In India recently, Fischer spoke on IMF, India, and the global recession.
More Net Specials
Tech Survivor...
If the new economy is all about the greater fool theory, then it can't have a better poster boy than Microland's Pradeep Kar. Here's why.

I sincerely believe he has a brilliant future behind him.'' The Bangalore-based venture capitalist who has this to say about serial entrepreneur Pradeep Kar-him of Microland, Planetasia, ITspace, and fame-goes on to indicate his preference for anonymity referring to a nugget of wisdom gleaned from the Panchatantra: ''Never publicly defame a once commended name''. And Pradeep Kar was, and is, a commended name.

Even the little criticism he attracts is tempered. One reason for that could be that Kar, who founded Microland in 1989 with capital provided by sbi Capital, is a professional who made it big: his family moved from Kashmir to Mumbai in 1961 in search of better things. His father found a job in Tata Electric (now part of Tata Power) and rose up the ranks, but Kar was always keen on doing his own thing.

Says Prashanth Prakash, CEO of Netkraft, a Planetasia rival, ''Kar is able to spot an opportunity, hire the right people, and somehow obtain funds to run the operations. Of course, it is a different story when it comes to execution.'' Adds Avinash Vashishta, CEO, neoIT, a Bangalore-based tech company, ''Undoubtedly, Kar has been able to spot certain trends in the industry. Whether they were the right trends to pursue is a different matter.''


Vinod KhoslaVinod Khosla, General Partner,
Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Kar is reported to have met with Khosla during his stint in the US. TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs) meetings helped nurture the relationship.
Invested in

John SculleyJohn Sculley, Partner, Sculley Bros.
Kar met the former Pepsi and Apple exec at one of the WEF dos in the 1990s
Invested in

Yogen DalalYogen Dalal, Co-managing General Partner, Mayfield Fund
Kar met Dalal when he was the CEO of Claris, an Apple company, in 1987. He was trying to persuade Dalal to start a software development centre for Apple in India.
Invested in

Navin Chaddha, Chairman & CEO, Rivio
Chaddha is an old Microsoft hand.
Kar is believed to have met him through mutual contacts.
Invested in the Microland Group

Ram Shriram, Managing Partner & Chief, Sherpalo.
The former exec met Kar through mutual acquaintances
Invested in

S. ParthasarathySanjay Parthasarathy, VP (Strategic Business Development), Microsoft Corp.
Kar got to know Parthasarathy when he was the CEO of Microsoft India
Invested in

Rajat GuptaRajat Gupta, CEO, McKinsey & Company.
Kar reportedly got to know him through his auditors, PWC
Invested in

Rupert MurdochRupert Murdoch, Chairman, Newscorp.
Initial contact was established through James Murdoch (Rupert's son).
Invested in (and now owns it)

Kar himself is far from modest when it comes to explaining how he has transformed his empire: ''I have always been able to spot inflection points in technology. All the transformation has been to address the changes and take advantage of them.''

Only, all that trend-spotting hasn't helped Kar realise his articulated objective of a revenue of Rs 1,000 crore for the Microland Group by 2000. In 1997, Microland was ranked among the top 10 it companies in the country by Dataquest magazine. Its revenues for the year? Rs 182 crore. Today, Microland and all its divisions and subsidiaries are estimated to rake in revenues of Rs 54 crore. The exact figures are not known as all companies are privately held.

Kar has a ready explanation for the fall: it is all Goldman Sachs' fault. ''Goldman Sachs released a report on October 14, 1999, projecting that the number of net users in the country would reach 70 million by 2003. We initiated our plans on pure-play dotcoms based on the assumption that the projections by such a renowned firm would stand. We knew that the market was still evolving, and we were jumping into unknown territory. But we felt that if we succeeded, we would have the first-mover advantage.'' The between-the-lines suggestion in that: pioneers don't always succeed.

The Selling Game

One of Kar's start-ups, Planetasia (founded, 1997; See A Brief History Of The Microland Group) does affirm his status as a pioneer. It was about the web, and it was early by Indian standards. His other companies, sadly, can't rightfully claim to be pioneers:, a tech-community portal, was born in 1999, well after Cyber India Online. And Kar's most ambitious venture to date,, saw light of day in April 2000-a time when there were already several horizontal (read all-purpose) portals.

Today, itspace, in Kar's own words is ''at a standstill'', and has been acquired by Rupert Murdoch's Star Group. Kar claims to have made big money on the deal. Much of that must have come from Murdoch's original investment, through News Corp, into Indya. Those were the glory days of the net and the company paid $50 million for a 32.5 per cent stake in a dotcom that was then valued at around $150 million.

Refuting Kar's claim that other investors in the portal made money when Star acquired all of Indya, a dealmeister who played a part in the transaction says, "When the parting came, everybody shared the liabilities together and nobody made money.''

Star's later move to acquire all of was widely seen as an expression of Murdoch's desire to make the best of a bad deal and convert into an online extension of its larger television strategy. Explaining this strategy, Sunil Rajshekar, head of Star's online foray says: ''Future media consumers will want simplified access to information on our bouquet of channels. Indya, we believe, will be the hub on which this strategy will revolve.''

Too Near For The Far-Sighted?

What's intriguing is that someone as trend-savvy as Kar missed the biggest and most profitable one of them all: export-led software services. ''This,'' says a former colleague of Kar, ''despite the fact that he headed, way back in the 1980s, the software services division of Indian Organic Chemicals in the US-what was to later become Sonata ''.

The man himself admits he missed the bus. ''The single biggest regret I have is that we did not get into software services earlier.'' The defence: Microland had an opportunity to do so in 1996, through Y2K projects, but chose to give it a miss. But that doesn't explain why all Microland companies continued to ignore the export market till 2000. Planetasia, for instance, was content to build websites for Indian companies till 2000. Eventually, competition, and a price-war in the domestic market forced the company to look without.

The Man

Pradeep KarAge: 43 years
Education: Engineering degree from Visvesaraya Regional College of Engineering, Nagpur, Maharashtra; MBA from Mumbai's S.P. Jain Institute of Management
Companies he's worked for: Wipro Information Technology; Indian Organic Chemicals
Awards: Recipient of the India Young Business Achiever Award in 1989; Nominated as a 'Global Leader of Tomorrow' by the World Economic Forum in 1999
Family: Wife, Kalpana (40), Masters from Oxford; joined Tata Administrative Services; worked with Tata Unisys & Titan Watches; currently Honourary Member, Bangalore Agenda Task Force
Daughter: Pranika (three-and-half-years old)
Interests: Reading, music, photography, & golf
Trivia: Founded an informal Bangalore-based CEO club, the Beer Drinkers Association of Information Technology (BAIT) in 1993; named sexiest man in Bangalore in a recent poll conducted by a city newspaper.

None of this would have mattered had Kar managed to make a success of each of his seven start-ups over the past decade. Kar himself refutes this: ''In hardware we were major players by the mid-1990s, but it was a low margin business and we got out of it. (In) other businesses, like web services, we initially focused on the domestic market, which was small.''

When Microland, a hardware vendor focusing on the networking area, started a products division named Microcell in 1991, most industry analysts felt it was an opportunity for the company to become a large hardware distributor-much like Redington and Ingram Micro have. But Microcell died a quiet death, largely from apathy, in 1993, and declining margins and the emergence of large hardware distributors played a role in Microland's decision to exit the hardware business in 1997. ''Hardware is a business where margins are wafer thin,'' says Anand Sudarshan, co-CEO, Planetasia, and a member of the core team that founded the group. ''We decided to get off the business even though it meant a decline in the topline.'' Decline is an understatement. The group's revenues plummeted from Rs 182 crore that year, to Rs 20 crore the next.

Planetasia, the core of Kar's shrunken empire, hasn't done too well for itself either. It registered losses of Rs 15.83 crore on a turnover of Rs 24.85 crore for the nine months ending December 31, 2001. ''The losses are on account of our aggressive write-off policy,'' explains Kar. ''We expect Planetasia to clock revenues of $15 million (Rs 72 crore) next fiscal.''

Blind Following

If there's an enduring mystery surrounding Kar, it has been his ability to attract marquee investors despite venture after venture of his flopping.

Posit that it is the greater fool theory that has worked to his advantage and Kar is indignant in his response: ''John Sculley, Vinod Khosla, and Sanjay Parthasarathy, have bought into our story. None of them can be called gullible''. Says the Panchatantra-quoting venture capitalist, ''Kar is a great ideas man; he is terrible at execution, and his glib oratory is his best asset''.

It's hard not to be swayed by Kar; the man could charm the proverbial deaf adder. Indeed, so entrenched is the myth about Kar's trend-spotting abilities that even hard-nosed investors like Ram Shriram, Sanjay Parthasarathy, and Yogen Dalal didn't think twice about investing in his ventures (See Kar's Network). Kar had met some of these individuals (such as legendary venture capitalist Vinod Khosla) during his stint in the US for Indian Organic Chemicals, and nurtured the relationships over the years. Others, he'd met at networking jamborees such as the World Economic Forum's annual summit; he was young, presentable, articulate, and successful, a killing combination.

Says Dalal, "Pradeep Kar is a wonderful entrepreneur". Parthasarathy's response is similar. "Pradeep was the only reason (for my investment in''. Kar also cites the fact that ICICI Ventures and JP Morgan, have invested in almost all Microland initiatives as evidence enough of the salience of his ventures. Both icici Ventures and JP Morgan refused to speak to BT.

The way investors feel about Kar may have something to do with his ability to find an exit for them. In the deal, for instance, Star bought out all investors; Kar says everyone made money, but flaunts his privately-held status when asked for details. ''We have provided excellent returns to our investors, especially in the initial years. All our investors, except Star, have made money.''

When queried about returns, Parthasarathy says, ''I am not complaining'', and Ram Shriram (formerly of Netscape and Amazon), takes refuge behind the abstruse, ''Selling out to a larger player was the best outcome. In this market, return of capital is a good goal in certain circumstances.''

For the record, Kar who reportedly owns more than 50 per cent of the Microland group (he neither confirms nor denies this) hasn't been able to take any of his companies public-a desire he first articulated in 1995. Nor does he seem to possess a personal fortune to show for over a decade of enterprise. A Bangalore-based venture capitalist claims Kar made just about $1.5 million (Rs 7.2 crore) from the Indya deal-not big money by today's standards. And the man himself pointedly refers to the fact that he still lives in a rented house in Koramangala, a Bangalore neighbourhood popular with techies. Today, he says, the group is in consolidation mode. ''We have sufficient funds to keep us going. But should an opportunity arise, and should we need funds for it, we will tap our private investors.''

That opportunity could be just around the corner. Kar says he has spotted something in the networking space that will become hot in the next three years. ''Obviously,'' he grins, ''I can't disclose this now''.

Other Story Links...