Vijay Ullal is the CEO and Founder of Seabed VC, which invests in early-stage startup companies and offers mentorship for entrepreneurs. We recently asked Vijay about his advice for future entrepreneurs and what makes up the foundation for success. Here’s what he had to say:
What were some business lessons you learned growing up?
I grew up in a family of lawyers and judges; so naturally I became an engineer! I relished going against the grain of what people expected of me. Although I could have led a comfortable life in India, I chose to move to the US with $800 that my dad loaned me, determined to succeed. I always had an intense curiosity for new things and learned that for me to be happy, I had to pursue what’s new and exciting. That thinking -challenging the status quo – shaped most of the decisions I made in my career.
What are some life lessons you’ve learned over the years?
I learned early on that I must to be true to myself. I have a thirst for knowledge and new things and I must follow that. More importantly, that family always comes before anything else and what really matters at the end of the day are those near and dear relationships.
What was your biggest failure and how did you recover?
My biggest failure was probably that first startup we founded. We ended up selling it for 20 percent of what was invested in it. That wasn’t a fun experience. But we took away important skills from that learning experience and we applied it to our next endeavor which turned out to be a huge success. I learned that you must be willing to take those risky bets knowing that it might not pan out and that you learn more from your failures than your successes.
How do you define success?
To me, a happy family life is the bedrock of success. Beyond that, I keep in mind Steve Jobs who urged everyone to “try to make a dent in the universe.” That’s what I continue to strive for. If I can do that in some small measure, I will consider it a success. My wife and I have two daughters and if we can pass on that same drive in them to have a positive effect on the universe, that would be icing on the cake.
Do you have a mentor and, if so, who is it?
My mentor was the late founding CEO of Maxim, Jack Gifford. He taught me a lot about how to grow a business, how to hire the right people and how to find the right technology. He was difficult to work for but he had a good heart and he only pushed people that he knew could handle it. These people might not have realized their own potential without his influence. I think he’s the best business man that I’ve ever met. He would analyze issues from an angle that most people would miss.
He felt strongly about people and made it a point to take care of those who worked for him. Every company has three stakeholders: customers, investors, and employees. He always put employees first because he knew that they hold the key to success. That said, he was merciless in our business and operations reviews. We’d prepare for them for days. He would still manage to ask us questions that really challenged us and forced us to approach things differently and more thoughtfully.
What is the one piece of advice you’d give to young entrepreneurial minded engineers wanting to launch a company?
Some people launch companies with the sole intention of making money. That’s wrong. You should pursue something because you love it. Every time I have made a decision that was motivated only by money, I have regretted it. Starting a company is an enormous challenge and the obstacles are unreal. If you don’t absolutely love it, you are just going to give up on it. My advice is “Don’t do it for the money”. Do it because you really want to have an impact. And when you do, the company’s mission elevates everything about it – the employees it attracts, the product or service it delivers, the customers it sells to. The money will follow.
Desh Deshpande, who I really respect, has started many successful for-profit companies and non-profit organizations. He always gives great advice to potential entrepreneurs. Whenever someone asks him if they should start a company, he simply says no. He believes that a real entrepreneur would go ahead and do it anyway.
What’s your favorite book of all time and why did it speak to you so much?
Ray Kurzweil wrote a series of books about the artificial intelligence. The second in that series, “The Age of Spiritual Machines”, really stuck with me. He wrote the book in ’97 and pretty much everything he forecasted is happening. I believe he is a modern day genius, having invented three ground-breaking inventions in AI. In his books he explored topics that people don’t normally think about. Most people are living their lives oblivious to the breakthroughs occurring in the world around them. What’s happening in technology now is so different than any time in the history of human beings and Kurzweil saw it coming 20 years ago. It is one of the reasons I invest in AI today.