If Opportunity Doesn’t Knock, Build A Door
We cannot evade life’s course, but we can school ourselves to be superior to
fortune and also to look unflinchingly upon the most painful things.
– Herman Hesse, Demian, 1919
Ajit Nazre has been a notable figure in the tech world of Silicon Valley. A Mechanical Engineer, a student of medicine, and a Harvard MBA, he played a key role, working with CEO Hasso Plattner, in leading and shepherding SAP into the Internet era. Ajit Nazre was then recruited to directly be a Senior Partner of the valley’s most prestigious venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. Ajit has an ability to think big and take risks, and he dares to take the forks-in-the-road that most of us mainstream folks don’t!
But that’s probably not what most of us think of when we hear Ajit Nazre’s name. Ajit, as you know, has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. Despite the courts absolving his firm, Kleiner Perkins, and him of all of the allegations and accusations that made the headlines, the intense media circus will, unfortunately, take some time to fade from the valley’s memory.
I have known Ajit Nazre professionally for over 15 years now. Ajit’s career path has been anything but conventional. He started off as a biomechanical engineer in the medical devices industry after a PhD in engineering mechanics and a degree in medicine from university of Hanover in Germany. He then moved into management, selling orthopedic and neurological products. With barely any programming knowledge, he got hand-picked by Hasso Plattner, SAP’s co-founder himself, to be part of his team in Palo Alto. At the height of his success with SAP, he changed tracks to become a venture capitalist with one of the largest and most established firms in Silicon Valley, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB). He has worked in Europe, Silicon Valley and India and his degrees — B.E., M.S, PhD, MBA — don’t follow the traditional academic trajectory.
It would seem that Ajit has the habit of making the unconventional appear normal, the out-of-the-box appear ordinary. But that is the man being his authentic self. Bold and confident, he isn’t afraid to ‘reinvent himself’. He loves the excitement that comes with a challenge, thrives because of his brilliance, and is passionate to a fault.
Most of all, it’s impressive how well he has handled himself through crisis, and how he has bounced right back — wiser from the experience no doubt, but all eager and ready to continue to change the world as only he knows best! We, at AnuPartha, set out to speak with him to throw light on Ajit Nazre the Thinker, Innovator, & Leader, and to learn about the exciting roads he has traveled, and where he is headed next…
If You Know What You Want, Decisions Often Become Easier!
If you give Ajit Nazre two options, it wouldn’t be surprising if he went ahead and created a third! Even as a teenager, when faced with a choice of either medicine or engineering, he questioned why it had to be one over the other. The education system being what it was in India, he had to settle. He chose engineering, but that didn’t stop him from looking for an opening to enter the medical field. While doing his masters in Biomechanics in Michigan, he got a chance to participate in an exchange fellowship program with a German university. He jumped at the opportunity that allowed him to study medicine in parallel to working on his PhD!
“It was not easy studying medicine and working on a PhD and doing it all in German, but I always wanted to do both, so it was never a problem.” tweet
He spent six highly productive years in the medical industry — first at Bristol Zimmer followed by a stint at Synthes (Mathys AG) in Switzerland — he has 7 US and 4 European patents to show for it! His intellectual curiosity drew him towards taking the plunge into product marketing and business development. An MBA from Harvard Business School transformed his career course and set him on the path towards SAP and Hasso.
A Call from a Scout that Changed his Life…
Ajit was all set to re-join the medical industry after his MBA but in February of 1998, he got a call from a SAP scout on campus. Out of a class of 786 people at Harvard, and one of only nine German speaking candidates, he was given the opportunity to meet the legendary Dr. Hasso Plattner, the co-founder and CEO of SAP. Ajit had a long list of questions prepared for the interview with Hasso, ranging from topics around starting SAP, to hiring people and even sailing!
“We ended up talking for two and a half hours and eventually Hasso had to remind me that — ‘this is YOUR interview, not mine!’” tweet
Hasso saw Ajit as a person who was willing to learn quickly and one who was ready to take on a challenge to eventually grow into handling more complex roles and environments. Despite having no experience in programming or product sales, he instinctively knew that Ajit could bring an entirely different perspective to his team. A bemused Ajit actually questioned his decision, but Hasso convinced him to give it a shot. “Come on over, stay here for two years, and you will bring in a different perspective. If you don’t like it, you can always go back!” That’s how Ajit found himself aboard SAP as a Technical Assistant to Hasso!
When the Winds Change Direction, Adjust Your Sails
Ajit stepped foot into SAP in 1998. Those were the pre-internet days in enterprise software. At the time, SAP was growing fast, and on the doorstep of the first billion-dollar revenue year.
“SAP was growing like crazy, and literally turning down customers as they didn’t have the bandwidth to serve all of them! In the US, depending on the revenue of the customer, we decided whether we could serve them or not!” tweet
The reality was that the corporate computing world was about to be turned on its head. For those with a blinkered view of the industry it may not have been apparent, but for visionaries like Hasso Plattner, it was obvious that a revolution of sorts was imminent.
Hasso anticipated the need for SAP to evolve in order to keep up with the explosion of the Internet and the age of e-commerce that was to follow. It was a testament to his foresight that he moved from the headquarters in Germany to a tiny office in Palo Alto with a 30-member team, spending nearly 50% of his time there. He recognized that Silicon Valley was the seat of technological innovation where changes were implemented quickly, and he saw value in being where these rapid changes were taking place. Not only did SAP enjoy the distinction of dominating the market for enterprise software, it also created the unique go to market model together with various consulting companies to implement its software. SAP was and is amongst the finest enterprise software leaders of our times for the reason that it dealt with competitive threats and emerged stronger time and again. SAP always has found a way to turn the tide with a host of out-of-the-box strategies, and has armed itself with the best talent to lead the next wave of change.
Give the Right Person the Freedom to Make Good Decisions
With the Internet boom, there emerged dozens of newcomers like Ariba, i2 and Siebel, promising an array of nimble and specialized software applications (a far cry from SAP’s monolithic and integrated R3). These upstarts were quick to catch the attention of the enterprise sector, leaving giants like SAP suddenly scrambling to catch up.
“In the late 1999 and early 2000, SAP faced a serious rival in the US: Oracle. Oracle had teamed up with Sun and marketed brilliantly to become the dot in the dotcom and portrayed SAP as a company stuck in the past with the client server architecture!” Ajit recalls how SAP was dealt blow after blow — Ariba took over one of its key and oldest customer, Chevron, Siebel poached their head of sales. These were turbulent times indeed!
“In just one year, the whole situation had transformed! That is when we created mySAP.com.” tweet
mySAP.com was just the beginning of a new era of collaboration and openness for SAP and Ajit was instrumental in its formulation and execution. It enabled millions of suppliers and customers across the world to connect and collaborate over the internet using SAP’s new open and integrated architecture.
“Why don’t we create a company which only focuses on selling e-commerce and marketplace products, directly competing with Ariba or i2?,” Ajit asked Hasso. The key idea was to leave SAP’s ERP software, R3, the way it was, and create an independent company with a separate board and management team that would develop products in Palo Alto and Germany at a different clock speed. In his words, “We planned to have a smaller, nimbler company. We didn’t have to move the whole ship; we would just have a speed boat next to it which would go fast and catch them!”
The sailing imagery aside, Hasso was sold on the idea and SAPMarkets, which focused on e-commerce, procurement and market place applications and technologies. SAPMarkets was launched in 2000 with Ajit Nazre as one of its co-founder.
“Worst case this experiment will fail, but big deal! At least, we have not harmed the rest of SAP. And if it succeeds nothing like it!” tweet
Keep Your Friends Close, and Competition Even Closer
Considering the fact that time was a critical factor, Ajit suggested joining hands with Commerce One, and quickly gained a chunk of the e-market mindshare. Although the market for vertical marketplaces tanked the following year in the wake of the dotcom crash, Ajit points out that the strategy became the foundation of what SAP would eventually continue with.
“The strategy of partnering to build a larger stronger ecosystem became second nature to SAP. It fostered the whole concept of creating an open infrastructure to support creation and integration of modular apps.” tweet
An important pillar of mySAP.com was to improve ease of access to the SAP integrated R3. In the search for a “portal” that would offer the various R3 services in a granular fashion, Ajit met Shai Aggasi, the founder and CEO of TopTier. So confident was Ajit about partnering with Shai and TopTier, that he literally told Hasso “You will thank me!” SAP eventually acquired TopTier in 2001 and created SAP Portals. Both SAPMarkets and SAP Portals were subsequently reintegrated into SAP in 2002, with Ajit back in its fold.
Never Underestimate the Reach of a Transformative Idea
In 2002 Ajit created SAP Inspire –SAP’s New Venture unit. It was a business incubator that focused on fostering internal entrepreneurs and working with small companies to build new businesses. “SAP had a tough time incubating new businesses. Even if it was something big that they eventually acquired, they could not do it by themselves.“ An inspired Ajit pitched the idea of SAP’s in-house venture unit to the executive board, and it was well-received. –
Ajit started out with a 10-member team and one of the key people that he got on board was Vishal Sikka. Ajit recalls his time with Sikka fondly: “We concocted several ideas on what areas we wanted to start businesses and one of them was in the area of in-memory databases!” It would be nearly a decade before Vishal could make HANA a reality and it went on to become SAP’s flagship data analytics product.
Always Look for Something New to Learn
Ajit Nazre wholeheartedly attributes his success and learning to Hasso Plattner. In an almost reverential tone, he says, “All this was because of one man — he was like everything for me.”
“I used to introduce Hasso to as many new ideas and new people as possible. He chose to have a lot of inputs with different perspectives when it came to making products for SAP”. tweet
Though the career trajectory at SAP for Ajit pointed upward, his passion for learning eventually got the better of him. One day, out of the blue, Ajit received a call from KPCB. Kleiner was known for its Midas touch especially with investments in almost all the huge success stories of that time including Google, Juniper, Amazon, etc.. Ajit was in a tough spot — why leave a privileged position when you have a mentor like Hasso, the most powerful person in the company, rooting for you? But ultimately, it was too good an offer to resist and in Ajit’s words “There was one Hasso at SAP, but Kleiner had five such mentors and I could learn a lot from all of them!” And with that call, Ajit Nazre’s five magical years at SAP…and with Hasso, drew to an end.
A Team Makes Better Decisions than an Individual
The Kleiner chapter was a totally different ball game for Ajit, and it was a steep learning curve on partnerships and people. Ajit recalls his initial days with Kleiner — “There was such magic in that partnership in 2002–03. KP was untouchable!” His greatest lesson from the experience was seeing first hand that working together as a team was critical for success.
“You make great decisions when you have a small group of smart thinking people, with different opinions and experiences.” tweet
While 4 partners ended up leaving the partnership not long after, Ajit continued as a Senior Partner, navigating his way around the uncertain world of venture capital, and honing his business acumen in the process.
New Geographies Need New Strategies
KPCB was extremely keen on succeeding in China. To enter the market, KP ended up acquiring a Chinese venture firm. One of KP‘s long and dear friends, Ram Shriram, brought the idea of investing in India. Ram wanted to start a fund together with KP focused on India. Ajit suggested that instead of investing out of a new $100 million fund, it would be a more measured and less risky move to invest in companies as they came along from existing funds. “There is no pressure. If you find something, great! Nobody is going to stop us. If you don’t find something great, we are not compelled to invest!” Ram and KP invested together in 9 companies over six years — some of the most prominent ones being Naukri (which went public), Cleartrip, MapMyIndia and InMobi. There were of course several hits, and some misses, but it was all part of the learning curve.
Our business was people, and betting in blank spaces and identifying white spaces.” tweet
Never Stop Learning, Trying and Doing New Things!
Ajit’s passion for creating new businesses led him to Reliance Industries in 2012. As EVP and CSO, he spent the next three years laying the groundwork for Mukesh Ambani’s vision of Reliance ‘Jio’ to take flight. Jio has the ability to transform the Indian sub-continent by offering broadband connectivity to its people. Ajit is currently a venture advisor at Wellington Partners. He is a member of the Board of Directors at Cavendish Kinetics, and the Chairman of Board of Directors at GLO — both companies that work with next generation technologies.
Ajit has spent a lot of time in the field of artificial Intelligence (right from his PhD thesis in which he integrated robotics with orthopedics), and his passion for how AI will transform the world is palpable. “Artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to make such a massive impact on humanity that the effects of the internet era will look trivial…AI is going to elevate the game for all workers, factory, service and knowledge workers. AI is going to make us compete like we have never before!”
Ajit thinks that the medical profession will feel the maximum impact of AI. The reason AI is not as pervasive in medicine yet is the fear of liability. But eventually outcomes will prevail and AI will become more ubiquitous in medicine.
Looking back at his experiences, good and bad, over the last 25 years, Ajit believes that taking a big step back helps in gaining new perspective. Instead of being decimated by the problems you face, it’s better to embrace them and try to objectively see what you can learn from them. “Problems and failure build character and contribute to wisdom,” he says.
Aniruddha “Ajit” Nazre is a thinker who is ahead of his time, and a man inspired to stay relevant with his passion for learning.There is no doubt that Ajit has what it takes to succeed in whatever position he sets his targets on, and we cannot wait to find out what the next feather in his cap is going to be!
Originally published at www.anupartha.com on June 23, 2016.