by Dennis Walikainen, senior editor
Maybe he missed his calling.
Maybe he should have been a professor instead of a successful entrepreneur who was part of the first Indian-owned company to go public in the US and the visionary who has helped numerous start-ups succeed around the globe.
Kanwal Rekhi ’67 was comfortable and engaging as he spoke to a packed ATDC Wednesday as students, faculty and community members learned about entrepreneurship and more.
Rekhi speaks from what he knows. He was brave enough to quit a safe, corporate job (after being laid off three times) and start his own company, with support from his wife, Ann, first and foremost.
“She said, ‘What about the mortgage? And the children?'” After some convincing, she said, “Do what you have to do.”
What he had to do was to start his own company, Excelan, with two partners. In 1982, they began manufacturing Ethernet cards to connect PCs to something called the Internet. Excelan was also instrumental in the TCP/IP Internet protocol. Excelan would go on to merge with Novell, and Rekhi became executive vice president, leading product development and technology strategies.
Rekhi drew parallels between the high unemployment of the early 1980s and today, and said both were good times to become an entrepreneur.
“The best times are the hard times,” he said. “Jobs are not plentiful, so there are resources available: laid-off people, rent is low, competition is not as tough, and you have time to get your service or product up to speed.”
He also said it is time to try your own business when you are restless and not happy, and you can identify the next wave.
Entrepreneurs create new wealth, he said, and, of course, it is hard.
“Ninety percent of people don’t have the entrepreneur gene and won’t try it,” Rekhi said. “So the odds of the percent who do try are ten times better! The first step is the hardest, into the valley of death. The first couple of years, it is just you, not even your wife or husband. Nobody outside.”
The downside to doing your own thing is that it is very difficult, he said. The upside is that there is unlimited potential for success, “but you have to find out if you have that entrepreneur gene. You have to try it.”
Becoming an entrepreneur in tough economic times has an additional upside: “You learn discipline early. You learn the value of money early. In boom times, they don’t have discipline, so when the market takes a downturn, they don’t do well. I discovered a new me.”
Fielding questions from the audience, he said money for start-ups is always available.
“Do your paper designs, paint a picture of that dream.”
And being an entrepreneur is much easier today because of the Internet. It is also a “team sport: We had a software guy, a hardware guy, me, who did the boards, and a sales and marketing guy.”
You can’t do it all by yourself, he said. First, find your strengths and weaknesses.
And he identified some strengths as personality traits, within the entrepreneur gene, for start-ups: having intellectual honesty, working harder than the other guy, holding yourself accountable, having a fair sense of value, knowing your domain, possessing leadership skills to pull everyone up, and not needing accolades from the outside.
“You’ll get daily satisfaction from the inside.”
He also thought the local area was perfect for entrepreneurs.
“You have a high quality of life, it is clean, good fiber (network), cheap labor with students, and a hotbed of intelligence here with the University.”
He compared Houghton and Michigan Tech to Silicon Valley and Stanford, which opened up its labs after hours, for example, to aid in intellectual property development.
He returned to the start-ups.
“There is no magic here. It will take four or five orders to make money, as the first and second orders from a customer are essentially free since you had to invest so much initially.”
“Stay focused. One sharp knife is great. Two sharp knives together become one dull knife.”
“Ideas are a dime a dozen. Creating and shipping your product gives it value.”
“You should grow as a leader faster than your business grows. Be very honest with yourself.”
“Spread your risk around: technological, marketplace, financial and execution as a leader.”
“As a leader, keep asking, ‘What am I missing?'”
Today, as a leader of TiE, a nonprofit that fosters entrepreneurship with 50 chapters in 11 countries, Rekhi focuses on the South Asian business community and has ties all over Silicon Valley.
Sometimes those beginners talk to him about how hard it is starting out.
“From India, I was dropped off a bus at Michigan Tech in 1967,” he says. “I could do it, why not you?”
Lesson learned. Class dismissed.