Venky Harinarayan is a Partner at Milliways Ventures, an investment firm investing in companies creating innovative and impactful technologies.
We recently asked Venky about how his early years shaped his career path along with his advice to recent graduates in the engineering field and what the steps to success look like. Here’s what he had to say:
Tell us about your early years and how they contribute to who you are today.
I grew up in India in the early 80s, when there was a lot of socialist influence in government so we were a very state-driven economy. And in the middle of all that, my father was an entrepreneur. A lot of the lessons I learned growing up stemmed from living in my house. My family witnessed first-hand the ups and downs of the lifestyle. I saw that whether you like it or not, in India at that time, you had to take on personal risk to succeed. After seeing how hard it was for my family, my mom made me promise her that I’d never become an entrepreneur. She didn’t want to see me face the same obstacles as my father. My early years gave me a sense of the highs and lows and showed me what a tough environment it can be. But it also taught me that as an entrepreneur, you must find the path to survival. Growing up in that environment gave me that wisdom and perspective.
What were some business lessons you learned growing up?
We didn’t have smartphones. And, back then, we didn’t watch TV as much. We played a lot of board games in my house and Monopoly was a favorite. I always played well, almost always won and people hated this when they played with me. My secret to winning was that I was creative in my deal making. I wasn’t a slave to the rulebook and thought of bargains that were outside the box. It helped me learn to be inventive and learn that I had to break some rules to be successful.
Who has been your biggest influence?
As an entrepreneur, you typically don’t look up to positions of authority. You’re your own biggest influence. You do things your way and forge your own path. It’s very rare that I would be influenced by other people. But if I had to look to one person that was very influential in my life, it was Jeff Bezos. I worked with him for two years after my company was acquired by Amazon. I learned more from him than I did from anybody else. I hold those lessons very dear.
When you went to college, did you have an idea of what you wanted to do for a career?
I went to undergrad in India and I came to UCLA for grad school. Then, like a lot of my peers, I moved to the Silicon Valley for a job, but I wasn’t very excited about it. I did really enjoy research. So, I decided to go to Stanford for my PhD and pursue that. When I was at Stanford, I remember asking a colleague about the Web. He coached me through it. That colleague was Sergey Brin who went on to co-found Google. This interest in how the Web worked inspired us to start working on a project together – one that involved combining databases. When I presented the project to my department, they were more focused on traditional database approaches, so we sat on our hands for a while with it. Then, one day David Filo, founder of Yahoo, came to talk at Stanford. We pitched our idea to him and he offered us a job at Yahoo. This idea, which we pitched to Filo, became my first company, Junglee, which was later acquired by Amazon for $250m. I didn’t know I wanted to be an entrepreneur immediately in college. I just found something I was passionate about and pursued it. Entrepreneurship just fell in my lap.
What motivates you to succeed?
My goal is always to bring my ideas to life. Seeing those ideas become a reality is what drives me. Success is just a byproduct of that process.
What career and life advice do you give to new college grads?
I always tell people the most important thing is to pursue things that you have fun doing. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing, you probably won’t succeed. The passion won’t be there. Most of the people I share this advice with are very smart people and if they are having fun, they are probably doing great work. I always say look for the long-term satisfaction in what you do because that’s the path to success.
What was your biggest failure and how did you recover?
If you’re an entrepreneur, nothing is a failure, just a setback. I’ve had a huge number of setbacks, but no huge failures. Rudyard Kipling suggests that we should treat wins and losses the same. You can’t get overly emotionally attached to any major professional outcomes. You can’t let the setbacks get to you just like you can’t let the wins distract you from continuing to strive for success. You just keep pushing and looking forward. Don’t dwell. Keep moving. Keep learning. Keep getting better. Find value in the setbacks. Wins might be more satisfying emotionally, but the setbacks provide more knowledge and help you course correct. You can’t look at anything as a failure. For example, when we were at Junglee, we had an acquisition offer from Yahoo in the works and everything was ready to go. All that was left was to meet our team. We prepped the team for this huge meeting and Yahoo didn’t show up. They called the deal off at the last minute. It was really taxing emotionally and it took team members about two-to-three months to get back on their game. Situations like that are crushing in the moment. But you need to soldier on and believe everything will come together. Luckily for us, Amazon came along about six or seven months later and bought us instead.
What’s your one biggest pet peeves?
Venture investors telling startups what they should do. It’s not like startup founders tell venture investors what they should do. They forget that it’s all about the entrepreneur. I take issue with this because a founder must figure it out for themselves. It’s part of their process. The joy of being an entrepreneur is there are no rules and so many investors think they can dole out unsolicited advice just because they gave these startups capital.
What do you think about most of the day?
I’m usually thinking about existing companies that I’m involved in and new investment opportunities. But I would say most of the time, I think about how the tech world is maturing and how it’s getting harder and harder to compete with the tech goliaths. So I ask myself, what’s next? What is the next huge, stand-out company going to be?
What do you think of the opportunity out there today for engineers, in regards to their salary and career potential?
In the 90s we were beginning the cycle of greatest equity wealth creation in the history of man. That cycle continues today and the tech ecosystem is an amazing place to be. If you look 10-15 years into the future, it’s up and to the right for engineers. If you’re in that ecosystem, you’ll be well rewarded. So, if you aren’t already part of the tech world, find a way to be.