Here’s yet another piece in our interview series. Thanks to Kiran Chandramohan (CEC 2003) for conducting the interview. The interviewee is Mr. Ranjith Antony of CEC 1997 batch, an entrepreneur-cum-author
A brief Profile: Ranjith Antony graduated from CEC in the summer of 1997. After graduation he joined MEC as a lecturer. He then went on to work with Avenir, Atinav, Pelco and Schneider before deciding to start a company (Perleybrook) of his own. In this interview Ranjith talks about his life after CEC. He shares his experiences, his views regarding startups and also about the book that he wrote.
Could you tell a few things about yourself?
My name is Ranjith Antony. I grew up in Kerala, India. I have been living in the United States for the past 14 years. I am a full time Dad and a husband. Kids pretty much wrap me around their pinkies that I have very little time to pursue my hobbies. However, I do find time to make things with hand like taking pictures, carpentry, DIY electronics, cooking and such. My interests changes over time. So, it is hard to say I have any hobby at all. I am a retired Tabalist. I play a bit of guitar too.
After passing out in 1997 you taught at Model Engineering College for an year. Accidental teacher?
Teaching is the only profession I knew when growing up. Both my parents were teachers. Mom is a retired Botany professor and my dad is a retired Malayalam Professor. So I fantasized myself becoming one. When an opportunity to teach came up, I took a dive and grabbed it. Glad that I did. Model Engineering College produced some really brilliant engineers during that time. My students were my teachers. I mean it literally. Senior students would teach me C++ and data structures and I would go to first semesters to teach them the next morning. I was also the lab in charge. So I had access to the computer lab 24/7. I utilized the situation to my benefit. Actually, at MEC I discovered myself and found out that programming is not such a bad thing.
Then you joined Avenir Computer Services. How was your first experience with the corporate world?
Avenir was not much of a “Corporate”. This was before the startup culture evolved like it is today. Avenir was starting off. I was probably the 5th or 6th employee they hired. All of us were just out from college and had no experience in real world engineering. It felt much like an extension to college. However, we shipped some great products. We developed the first commercially available Type 4 JDBC driver in 1998. Remember this is during the peak of the dot com frenzy. Everyone was re-creating an Amazon like store. All of them needed JDBC drivers for browser to connect to a remote database. We developed, we supported, we did the product management; we wore lot of hats. Fun times. And the product did really well. It was one of the best JDBC driver that passed a lot of benchmarks. So it was both an engineering success and a commercial success.
You joined Atinav in 2001. What brought you to Atinav?
Atinav is the product company of Avenir. Avenir was in consulting business and created a separate company to properly brand as a technology/product development company.
So it was during this time that you wrote the book “Bluetooth for Java”. What is the story?
Circa 2000, Bluetooth as a technology was in its early adoption stage. Around that time, Java started becoming very popular in handsets and embedded devices. There were even special RISC processors that ran java byte code natively. Sun and Motorola were at the forefront of this traction. Sun along with Motorola came up with a JSR-82 specification to define APIs for bluetooth. The idea is to make any bluetooth application hardware agnostic. So if you write a bluetooth application, it can be ported to any hardware/bluetooth chip if the OS supports JSR-82 specification. The chair of JSR-82 specification was C Bala Kumar, then an Engineering director at Motorola. So he authored a book much like a K&R for C. This was not an easy read. It was much like a reference and very academic in style. During that time Atinav was heavily involved in the JSR-82 community. The community felt that there is a need for a more hands own book. And thus came the book.
Were you always a geek?
I am a card carrying member. However, I didn’t win the super geek stardom until much later in life. In college that award went to few others. Shiraz and Swaroop in computers and Sidharth and Rajesh George from Electronics were the college geeks. Shiraz and Swaroop would camp out in the computer lab. They slept on the floor and hacked away. I had much better things to do (*wink*) in college.
How was your life in Pelco?
Pelco was just getting bigger when I joined. They had fewer than 200 engineers when I joined in 2005. But, boy that was a different world. I met some great engineers at Pelco, learned a lot, grew better with my engineering skills and got mentored by some great managers.
I wrote the API for Pelco’s cameras and DVR’s, to provide an integration point for third party devices to connect with pelco stuff. Later I switched to a customer facing job. I helped integration partners adopt Pelco’s API and get their integration off the ground easily. It was a busy life. I wrote lot of code, travelled around the world, and made contacts. I enjoyed every bit of it.
Pelco was acquired by Schneider Electric when I was there. We suddenly became huge. So got a bit of how it is working for a giant company too. Schneider is an awesome place to work. The contacts I made at Pelco/Schneider Electric is still helping me in my business.
When did the idea of PerleyBrook come to your mind?
Owning my own business was a dream from the very beginning. Family pressure, cultural blocks, and laziness just prolonged the decision. However, I didn’t want to start one for the sake of starting a company. I started PerleyBrook when I was convinced that I have a solution to a problem that the home/building automation industry is facing.
How hard was it to dump a regular job and decide to startup? What pressures did you face?
Walking away from a job that I loved, parting with my friends at Pelco and the customers that I supported in my job was the difficult part. Also, I have wife and kids to support. I was certainly at the end of my wits and worried to death that my kids would go starving. Credit goes to my wife who stood behind me. We talked about it and planned accordingly and saved enough before I made the switch. My wife was definitely happy when they took my blackberry away 🙂
But things didn’t pan out accordingly. My idea was to work on a product while doing consulting on the side to keep the cash inflow fairly equal to my salaried days. I had customers and there were enough projects at that time. In-fact, I had a handful of customers that my potential financial projection looked better than a salaried employee. But soon I ran into few wired health issues. Nothing major, but enough to put me out of service for about an year. So, I had to give up my client base. I had to start from scratch a year later to build customers and start generating a moderate income. The product I was working on took a back stage. It was not until 2013 mid, that I finally felt confident to hire more people and start working on the product.
Why did you decide to come back to CEC after 15 years for hiring for your startup ? Are you happy with your hires ?
Where else should I go ?. I know the place and have been in contact with the alumni all my post-student life. I would bump into them where ever I go. We have at least 20 something CECinas in the 50 mile radius of where I live. So CEC was a natural choice.
Unfortunately we could only hire one from CEC. He turned out to be a nice find after all. Way more than I expected. He is rocking the house and working really hard like any other CECian.
How is PerleyBrook doing ? Where do you see it in the next 5 years?
Perleybrook is doing fairly well. We would like to have grown a bit more than where we are at now. However, it was a careful choice to keep it under the wraps and grow organically during the first few years. We are a wee bit over cautious in hiring too. So that has impacted the pace. But we are satisfied with the current growth rate
In next five years we are heading to disrupt a very old enterprise vertical. The path is treacherous and difficult. We have our work cut out for us. In five years, we would want to grow PerleyBrook as a dream company for a fresh graduate to come and work.
What will be your advice to a CEC Alumnus wanting to startup?
My only advice to them is don’t start something unless you have a problem to solve. Booting a software company to do web designing and consulting gig and calling it startup is not what a startup really is. Start one only if you have a real world problem to solve.
In your opinion should a final year student take the plunge and startup or should he/she work for some years?
Startup is not a career path. It is a life style. However, like I said; don’t choose it if you don’t have a problem to solve. The solution to your problem may be vague, but if you see the problem and can define it clearly then you should go for it. It is totally upto the personality of the individual though. If you are a type who can deal with uncertainty and can calculate the risk of the unknown, then you should take a shot at a startup. If you are a cautious guy, then startup is not for you.
Your corporate “technical” experience may not help in a startup. But your life experience definitely will. And you earn those experiences by making mistakes. Even then, any amount of life experience will never prepare you enough. So why wait? My advice is to take the plunge. Worst, you will fail. It is a risk worth taking. Any life altering risk at age 21 is the one with least impact compared to all other risks you will take in your future life. But be committed to it. Never have a plan B. Just know when to exit. If it fails, go work for a corporate or another startup and brush up your skills. Try again. It is iteration. You will get better at each attempt and eventually will win.
What fond memories do you have about life in CEC? Did it play a role in your career?
CEC definitely had played a huge role. The biggest assets I earned, apart from my degree, are my friends. They are the only true friends you will make in your life. The friends from college would stay with you through your thick and thin. And in my case they did.
I might sound like a really old guy if I start musing about my college days. My memories are best enjoyed in the circle who experienced it with me. So, I will rather reserve it for them 🙂