Silicon Valley is full of corporate giants that have the money and manpower to solve some pretty complex problems. What the Valley also has is an abundance of incredibly brilliant people who lead startups that develop elegant solutions to those same complex problems and at times, out-compete what’s in the market. Not only do some of these entrepreneurs build and position companies to be unbelievably success, some go into another space and get ready do it all over again.
Rehan Jalil was taking apart toys and gadgets long before he enrolled into the NED University in Karachi to formally study Engineering. Born to a Middle Class family of 4 children, Rehan’s parents placed a great deal of importance on education. It’s no surprise three became engineers and one, a doctor. After NED, he came to the US to study Engineering, landed his first job at Sun Microsystems and hasn’t had too much time to look back since.
At the end of 2005, his company WiChorus came out with product that brought the power of Internet into your pocket over 4G. Just as high speed Internet was changing the way businesses and individuals were using the Web, WiChorus was set up to build the backend infrastructure to help bring that speed and mobility to mobile devices.
The corporate landscape at the time was Cisco, Alcatel, Lucent and Huawei and WiChorus was able to out-compete these giants. WiChorus was deployed across North America by early adopters of 4G Networks such as ClearWire and Sprint.
The success of WiChorus was pretty incredible. They had a product out, competing (and winning bids) against very large companies and being adapted by some very large service providers, all in less than 4 years. The company was seed funded by top tier Venture Capital companies such as Accel (the VC behind Facebook), Redpoint and Mayfield Fund. They raised $45 million to start the company but unlike many, began selling and generating revenue very quickly. Their steep growth rate continued and was eventually acquired by Tellabs in 2008 for $165 million.
Creating the High Speed
Rehan has always worked with companies that solve the problem of how to bring faster and better quality Internet speeds to users regardless of where they are. That’s what he was doing as the Chief Architect at Aperto Networks, a company that made deployments around the world, including many in Pakistan. Companies such as Supernet, Multinet and many banks deployed some of the Fixed Wireless solutions that Aperto Networks had developed. The company had great traction from markets in the Middle East, Pakistan and India.
For the more technically inclined, Aperto was a key contributor of technology that became part of IEEE802.16 and was a founding member of WiMAX Forum. Rehan’s experience in the fixed wireless really allowed him to be innovative in the planning and vision he had for WiChorus in the mobile space.
Around 1999, Rehan was on the design team that was working on multi-core processor designs at Sun Microsystems. It was pretty innovative stuff considering this was the team that designed one of the first multi-core multi-threaded processor for throughput computing and graphics applications.
“I landed Sun Microsystems somewhat accidentally”, he recalls. Rehan was studying at Purdue, which is far away from the Valley. It was 1998-1999 and the US economy was booming at the time. Companies were hiring and anyone from a good school usually had multiple offers and Rehan was no exception. When Sun Microsystems came in for the on-campus interview, he was inspired by the interview as well as the technology that they were working on creating at the time. “Besides,” he says, “Purdue had a Sun lab which really helped me have strong and clear understanding of the technology. I joined them and came to the Valley. It was a good decision.”
Creating the New
Seven years ago, the smart devices we have today, didn’t exist. While businesses and large organizations were already planning and running on the Information Superhighway, not many users had the need for speed. Planning to solve the high-speed problem when it didn’t actually exist seems like a conundrum in itself. “The power of mobility was well understood in the Valley. What they were still trying to figure out was how to enable high-speed wireless Internet. That required new protocols.”
Silicon Valley has been at the center of innovation and excitement of how technology can shape the world. Whilst in the middle of this, decisions to join or create companies aren’t done lightly. Every company that came into existence did so to bring an idea to life and change the way people did things. To create the ‘new’.
Like many visionary entrepreneurs, Rehan always felt this ‘new’ has to be valuable and have an impact on the world. Many of his decisions to join the companies he did, had to do with his own background. “When I went to Aperto, to me it was clear what the impact of getting high speed Internet to the masses in developing countries for example, would be.While it was a tough decision to leave Sun, especially when the stock was doing so well, I felt Aperto was something that would allow me to do bring benefit to countries like Pakistan. Put one tower up and you could cover an entire village – putting up a few towers would provide Internet coverage for an entire town or area. So creating that technology from the ground up, end to end, was very fascinating and having impact was the incentive. Creating ‘new’ was very exciting – there are brownie points if the idea also has high impact.”
Like others, Rehan explains the nature of most innovators that start things in Silicon Valley. “People here are driven by how to use technology to make the lives of millions, better. The multiplication effect has to be huge, and it usually is.The question everyone is continually asking is can you contribute to make tomorrow better than yesterday? In the process, there is much learning that takes place, but the end result isn’t the point here. Whether or not you actually succeed, isn’t what people focus on here – it’s more about what you learned on the way that counts.”
The experimenting and desire to challenge the norm, was something that can be nurtured during University. “And that’s what a Startup is, isn’t it? Whether it was joining Aperto or starting WiChorus, the challenge was always to create something new and innovative that had a value proposition.”
The education system in Pakistan, even back then, didn’t exactly encourage ‘learning through fun’. Growing up, Rehan was often found opening up and dismantling toys and gadgets around the house. This might have made it obvious to everyone around him that Engineering was meant to be.“Things are either fun or very painful. I enjoy things that are challenging and fun. This ‘fun learning’ started at NED and continued through all the work I have done so far.”
The WiChorus Idea
Aperto was all about fixed wireless, which had its own limitations in terms of how many people would adopt it. “We expected a high rate of adoption in the emerging markets, but forthe developed countries, I felt they wouldneed something that was entirely mobile. The whole notion behind WiChorus was to take an OFDN (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) front end, and match it with a back end that was highly mobile, secure, authenticated,allowing operators better visibility as to what content was flowing through their networks.”
The problem is this: mobile operators are geared to charging for minutes and SMS; data doesn’t work the same way. As soon as you open up data, different applications come into play and voice just becomes one application. “We had to build some equipment that would give them that visibility on what applications were being used which would allow them to customize services and offerings.”
But WiChorus needed to build something in one platform. A high-end, high performance box with custom hardware, which inherently gave the operator complete control to manage the kind of throughout required to specific users, allowing them to have different billings and enable mobility. “This control existed for 2G Networks but not for Next Generation Networks (NGN).When we launched our product, it clicked.We got all the top 6 customers in our wish list and got all the early adopters of 4G. All this momentum gave the company a lot of prominence in the market to the point that multiple acquisition opportunities came forward, and the stakeholders felt that that was the right time.”
Despite the short length of the story, there is a great deal to learn from the WiChorus model. There are so many variables that attribute to the success of any company – how do all the stars align?
“Having an understanding of the ecosystem really helped,” begins Rehan. “WiChorus wouldn’t have existed if we were not really embedded into the infrastructure and didn’t have an in-depth understanding of how these technologies worked and what mobile operators may need in the future. That’s the value proposition and high impact. It wasn’t the kind of thing that you could dream up one day – if we weren’t living through it, I don’t think we would have known exactly what the need was.”
And there’s more. Success happens because of the people. “It’s the people who make companies successful. At WiChorus,we needed very unique talent: experts in wireless, IP Networking, Hardware design, System Design and having that combination of expertise at that time even in the Valley was very difficult. Having the right mix of people and experience was key to being able to do what we envisioned and the combination we made,was unbelievable. Our hardware team was making hardware that was ten times better than our competitor, which meant our performance was at least 6-8 times better even in the worst-case scenarios.”
According to Rehan, the entire architecture they developed was superior in performance and availability and it is all attributed to the people and the skills they brought to the company.
“And our timing was perfect,” explains Rehan. Standards were just being developed, which made our alignment spot on. Thanks to smart devices coming into the landscape, the value for high performance went up. Mobile operators were already seeing the demand for high speed on mobile go up. “Had these devices not entered the market when they did, the story may have been different where WiChorus may have been as high performance as it was, but not needed. So there was also luck in play.”
The WiChorus team played an active role in the Standard Bodies. “We would be contributing, understanding where the standards were headed and the impact they would have. So even as a small company, we carried a great amount of influence in the Standard Bodies.”
Strong partners that believe in your vision is critical, says Rehan. “It is not possible to build a system level company without strong investors backing you up. We raised $45 million dollars but investors were ready to put in more money down if it was needed.” Because the company had a quality product to offer and landed clients so soon, they didn’t burn through the investment. In fact, they turned profitable very quickly.
“Our Go-To-Market Strategy was strong and we launched an Open Standard. We created an ecosystem of partnersand created interoperability platforms. We created an interoperability lab and operators would ask vendors and providers to come and interoperate with us. So we developed a lot of pull to a 100-person company.”
Because of all these factors, customers picked them.
So WiChorus came, executed, built, deployed and got acquired – all in a short timespan of four years. The journey then continued under the umbrella of Tellabs.
The Elastica Dream
This the idea Rehan dreamt of. Literally! He laughs as he says, “Elastica wasn’t inspired because we are in the landscape.” A lot of applications were going into the Cloud, whether it was email or anything else. From Accounting to HR, Email to File Sharing – everything sits in the Cloud. But where’s the security around it? Where are the standards for it? Can there be complete vigilance to the point that the Enterprise doesn’t have to worry about the data or the apps? Can breaches be prevented? And if not, is the storage provider compliant with the laws of the land? Everything is going up into the Cloud, but security paradigm is missing.
Think of Elastica as a service that builds security fences around your data and applications in the Cloud. “In order to do this reliably and simply is very hard. You have to inspect traffic, apply machine learning, data sciences and big data on the back end, and develop a high available service that has low latency. How you do all this is very difficult, but that is what makes it fun. And in Silicon Valley, if its not difficult, it’s not fun.”
The company has data engineers, big data guys, networking gurus, security gurus;multi domain experts. “Just like WiChorus, there are very talented people who put their heads together to see if they can solve this problem. And this is a tough problem to solve, but we will solve it.”
At the time this piece was being written, the company was in stealth mode. There was a great deal of development being done, people were still being hired. On February 18, 2014, the company came out of stealth mode with $6.3 million in Venture Capital from the Mayfield Fund.
Building something new is the only life for many people and Rehan confesses being part of that club. You’ll find most people in the Valley start very young because you can do a lot of amazing things early. It’s got less to do with intellect and more to do with the fact that there are just fewer distractions and obligation, to be tied to. “But these people,” explains Rehan,“continue to make contributions throughout their life. I definitely want to keep contributing to the technology creation.”
Rehan achieved great success with WiChorus. So what’s the expectation with Elastica? “For starters, I don’t think I would have been this excited if I was doing something that was similar to WiChorus. What makes it exciting to lead Elastica is that it has nothing to do with anything I have done before – There is no physical system or power plug in our product – it’s all in the Cloud and its much more interesting. Creating new markets, identifying problems that exist in that market and working to build solutions, is fun.”
The Long Haul and Pakistan
Four years isn’t a very long time. Rehan explains while he had great belief in the promise WiChorus had, he didn’t quite imagine the ride to be so quick. “I don’t think you can do justice to something you start if you focus on the end. I think you want to build the best product and serve the most challenging(and desirable) customers, build the right team, the right culture, create the fun environment, pick the right location and then things will begin to happen. If they’re good things, great, else you keep going.”
WiChorus’ Pakistan operations began in 2007 and was involved in software development and testing. Even after the acquisition, the team grew to 65 people. But because the licenses for 4G were not even on the horizon for Pakistan, WiChorus didn’t have a market to work with. “In fact, Wateen was the only that deployed WiMAX at the time – the discussion in Pakistan is still for 3G, even though it would make more sense for them to jump to 4G directly.”
Greatest talent, according to Rehan, is what dictates where a business will go. WiChorus opened up an office in Hyderabad because of two reasons: one, they had a senior team member from Hyderabad who wanted to go back and generate work from there. And two, because of Microsoft’s presence in Hyderabad, the team felt they would find a lot of the Upper Layer InApplication talent that was needed to build the Network Management Application.
They found a lot of expertise in Bangalore in the Embedded Development space and set up an 80-people office.The US office was all about lead architects, the hardware and most of the software development. Clearly there were different pieces that were coming from different places.
“In Karachi,” says Rehan, “we did cutting edge projects. We were doing Layer 7 Application Research, Layer 7 technologies, all embedded and testing. In Pakistan, very few projects exist like that where projects get given at the forefront of technology.”
According to Rehan, Karachi is not the outsourcing destination it used to be – Lahore and Islamabad seem to have taken its place.“I do feel there are great schools and talent available in Karachi. If you’re thinking of building a 100-person company in Pakistan, you’ll find highly skilled people, however if you wanted to build a 1000-person company that does coding and development, it would still be really hard – the scale simply is not there.When WiChorus started 2007-2008, we were picking people out of school and training them as we went along. But then keep in mind that Embedded Software people are tough to find in the US, let alone Pakistan, so we had no choice but to invest in training.” And they did what any company does: pick the top notch, train them and absorb them. And it worked out pretty well for everyone. “A lot of those people are actually working here in Silicon Valley, which is a great testament to what we managed to do.”
Today Rehan sees a more evolved market as far as the skillset is concerned, and that is how markets evolve. As more startups and consulting firms go to Pakistan, they bring their own flavor of skill and exposure to add to the portfolio of expertise and experience. As markets mature, so does the talent pool.“What I find missing in Karachi is a product mindset. You’ll find a lot of consulting shops but few product companies. The customer tells you what piece they need you to make and you do exactly that. Job done. But in the case of Elastica, for example, we need people to be able to create products, not just a small widget. How to make our product high quality, reliable and dependable so we can sign off on it –and its tough to find such people because along with the skill, you also need to make people part of the culture of the company.”
Working across time zones isn’t an easy task. You really have to put your skin in the game. The Valley-Karachi time difference is probably the worst you get – by the time Karachi is getting to work, the Valley is wrapping up, but the team is willing to sacrifice, coordinate and work together. That makes up for the difference. “Despite the web-based and SAAS services, team collaboration tools that make things a little easier, Pakistan has a long way to go. I don’t think the pace is up there and the speed of things catching up, is also not very fast. The only hope for Pakistan I have is that the kids are incredibly talented.”
The Other Side of the Table
Entrepreneurs and Venture Capital companies are two very different worlds and Rehan has experience sitting on both sides. “As a VC,you start seeing how you contribute towards value creationfrom a different perspective. You are less hands-on, but you are backing the right set of people. When you’re running your own company, you’re in the drivers seat and you will do anything to steer your company and team in the right direction. As a VC, you need to pick the right person, trust them to execute. It’s a very hard bet.”
VCs predict the future. They’re making projections, analyzing the competitive landscape, predictingfuture demand, trends and placing a lot of trust in people. “And contrary to popular belief, track records don’t always result in success. Backing first time entrepreneurs is risky because they don’t have a track record. There’s a lot of black magic and gut instinct involved!”
First time entrepreneurs have the advantage of being hungry. They want to prove themselves and they are the right age, energy level and passion. “Sure they lack experience, but even first time entrepreneurs build some amazing companies. Serial entrepreneurs, on the other hand, sometimes just don’t have the hunger and lack the passion, which is often much more dangerous. Talented, skilled, passionate and hungry – that’s a combination I like to look for.”
VCs, according to Rehan, don’t always work on one deal in isolation, so you don’t always know which area they will go into. VC can be sector-focused so they have the in depth knowledge of the people, challenges and opportunities and they get good at picking the right teams, though its common for one VC firm to have more than one style of picking their bets. “The VC business by no means, is a straight forward business.”
Rehan, like many entrepreneurs, talks about how there is always a great deal of exciting stuff happening on in the Valley. “This place is really magical and its no wonder you have incredible companies coming out of the Valley. There are very bright people with very savvy investors and what makes the difference is that a lot of the investors have lived through technology companies and have a lot of sector expertise to rely on. In the Valley, you will always find a great combination ofintellect around the table: the money, technology, execution and market. That’s a tough combination to find!”
Rehan repeats his rationale behind the hope he has for Pakistan’s future: the talent is incredible. “There were a lot of inspiring teachers like Professor Noman, but because the tools didn’t exist when we were growing up, we were on our own. We’d rely on photocopies from book bazaars, or go to the markets and buy widgets from the money we earned by giving tuitions so we could build something. With Internet and online courses, the transfer of knowledge today is unbelievable. This is an incredible age we live in.”
The next five years, explains Rehan, will be the Golden Age for learning. There is going to be so much content available through MIT, Stanford, and any school you can dream of, will be accessible.Those who take advantage of this time will make something of themselves. “But talent in Pakistan isn’t alone in accessing this content. This Golden Age is open for all, so kids in Pakistan will be competing with kids from around the world –the landscape of the kinds of problems that will be solved will almost be surreal.”
Is competition a bad thing? Rehan responds saying, “Just as our brain works better if you have an increased number of neurons firing, if humans don’t evolve and connect with one another, we will not be able to reap the benefits from the invention of all this technology. More people being allowed to communicate with one another is beneficial for all of us in understanding the ecosystem.”
For someone who came to the US from Pakistan with nothing more than a desire to work hard and make something of himself, the milestones in Rehan Jalil’s life are pretty inspiring… and he’s still going strong.