Life lessons from Kris Gopalakrishnan

The co-founder of Infosys and founder of Axilor Ventures opens up in an intensely personal conversation on the various stages of his life


Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Bring up Kris Gopalakrishnan’s name, and everybody thinks: That Infosys man. Yes, there is no taking away from the fact that he was part of the founding team at Infosys Ltd, led the company as chief executive through some of its most turbulent times and continues to remain a large stakeholder. But he has moved on to other things as well.

The understated “Kris”, as everybody calls him, has just completed work on itihaasa, a “multimedia work of love” that meticulously documents the history of the Indian IT industry. It is available as a free download. He spends a good amount of time at Axilor Ventures mentoring early stage start-ups. Then there are philanthropic activities he is interested in.

Much has been written and spoken around all these. That is why I thought I might try and steer clear of this ground. I wondered if it would be possible to try and ask the famously reticent Kris to share his learnings from the road on what I think has been a life well lived. Which is what I did, around four broad areas.

1. If the idea of turning entrepreneurial is playing on my mind, when do I take the so-called plunge?

2. What is it like to be an entrepreneur? Is it lonely? What kind of pressures do you feel? How do you protect yourself?

3. Now that he’s been there, done that, what does he think of the future and where is he investing his personal monies?

4. What regrets does he have? What advice does he offer the younger ones getting into business?

Edited excerpts:

Tell us about your journey as an entrepreneur. The way we have defined ‘entrepreneur’ is not necessarily somebody who starts an entity. You could be in a government organization, a private firm, a kirana store. It’s a mindset. But there are challenges you face and there is a certain mindset that is required. What would your choice be? You know that you have to be an entrepreneur in whatever it is that you do.

There will be lots of problems in an organization and there will continue to be new problems. You want people who will own the problem, find a solution, be part of that solution and be confident enough to say that we will solve the problem. To me that is what an entrepreneur is and that’s what entrepreneurship is all about. Owning the problem, finding the solution, going against all odds, finding the resources, and solving the problem. That attitude, that confidence, that drive, is what entrepreneurship is all about.

Now in our own case, we said we wanted to start Infosys, but we said Infosys to us is more than a business. It was our idea of what a business should be. Of course, it has to deliver value to its customers, it has to have employees, it has to have solutions and things like that. But more importantly, in doing all these things, we must earn the respect of all the stakeholders—customers, employees, investors, government and society. And then, Infosys will be successful and we will be successful.

So, it was never about money, or about being the largest or the most profitable, etc. It was about providing superior value to all stakeholders.

We also said that we will share, we will make sure that other companies also succeed, the ecosystem succeeds. Giving back to society was there in the DNA of the company, the DNA of the individual. Ultimately, if you create something that is win-win—and it takes time, it is not overnight—it will succeed and through that success, since others are also benefitting, there is a sense of satisfaction and a sense of achievement.

What was it like to start out at a time when the accepted wisdom was that you need to be in a stable place?

When you start, yes there are some risks, but those are risks at the individual level. Let’s say I am going to spend five years of my time trying this out. If this business doesn’t succeed maybe you will lose some money, you will lose some time, your family may lose something.

But to me, failure is limited in terms of its impact. In the sense that you may lose three-four years of your life and some money. And typically you will be able to go back to either taking a job or starting another business. It is when you are bigger, when you are successful, that the fear of failure becomes even greater. Because now there are lots more people dependent on you.

Infosys today has almost 200,000 employees. The success of Infosys will impact a large number of employees, their families, a large number of customers, and a large number of investors. So the fear of failure is significantly more. For example in 2007, when I became the CEO, everything was fine but in 2008 the financial crisis hit, the industry took a big hit and there was tremendous fear that we must do the right thing.

We have to make sure that the company continues to do well so that our employees, customers and investors are not hit. The share price came down dramatically—all those things happen. So the fear of failure increases, the bigger you become, the more successful you are. When you are starting, yes, there is fear of failure but that’s limited. The risks are limited to you and maybe your family.

When you take the plunge, you need a buy in from you immediate family….

In my case, I actually didn’t discuss with anybody.

I took the plunge and it was interesting. I was going to get married.

We decided in January to start Infosys, in April I got married but till then I didn’t tell them. So only after the marriage did I tell them that I am no more employed with Patni and that we are starting a business. Everything was alright and there was no issue with the family. They completely understood and accepted.

You spoke about how as you get bigger the fear of failure goes up. That’s when you are also a leader. That’s when you are also a lonelier…

Yes and no. First of all, the good thing about Infosys was the fantastic team of co-founders.

We support each other, we respect each other, we are good friends, we have worked together for long periods of time. And then there is the strong team within the company. And beyond that, you can definitely get support from the ecosystem, your customers, etc. So yes, in some sense, you are lonely because ultimately, it’s perceived as your decision whether it’s right or wrong, whether it’s successful or not. But there is support.

Does the complexity go up in an organization? You were seven co-founders. Were you plain lucky that you all got along well or did you all have work hard at it?

Both. It worked well because we had known each other for only a couple of years before we started and it was (N.R. Narayana) Murthy, who chose each one of us and it just worked. One person left in 1989 by the way. All of us didn’t stay on till the end.

So, there is an element of luck that it worked out, but we all worked hard to make this work. Our value systems were similar—middle class value systems. We said we will look at deferred gratification and we were willing to wait—all those are also important.

These are organizational learnings, that you are working as a team. If you were to extrapolate this into a family for instance…

In any team actually, if you put the team objectives ahead of individual’s objectives, the probability of being together and successful increases. You have to believe that being together increases the odds of success, so you need other people. You can’t do these things alone. So you have to make the sacrifices that are necessary to keep the team together and work towards a common objective.

And you need to believe that if, let’s say, the objective is met, then you will get the benefit of that. I think it’s very, very important.

How do you choose the leader? How do you decide that Kris is going to (lead now)?

Once you are a public limited company, there are processes.

Even otherwise, in each organization, you need to have a process for deciding on the leader. In the family, there will be a different process for deciding who is the leader.

But the key is, once you decide, you must give that person the time to perform and support that person for a defined period of time. The first thing is, if something goes bad you shouldn’t jump up and say ‘No, no, I need to now change,’ because everything you do may not work.

So, there has to be a process for decision making. Once the decision is made, you need to give that decision time to succeed and you need to support that decision and support that person for that period of time. Of course, if it is not working continuously, you need to make it change.

What is the latitude that you would get?

It’s all context-specific. You have to define what are the KPIs (key performance indicators) that you will monitor and see whether they are moving in the right direction.

(And this would hold true in) every team, every organization. In projects also (it is the) same thing. You say, ‘Okay, this is what success looks like. Are we moving in that direction? If we are not, then let’s sit together and discuss what needs to be done to correct it.’ And if that means leadership change, we need to make the leadership change.

How easy or how difficult is this negotiation?

These are all context-specific. In the case of Infosys, we always have processes for everything. Once we became a public company, it’s a board process, which is how we select leaders.

If you were to apply a larger lens and if you were to look at our current landscape—the Indian business landscape and how it is evolving, and you have seen your own evolution…

Many businesses are realizing that you need to have professionals running the business. Or if there are professionals from within the family, there has to be a mechanism to identify these people. By and large, Indian companies have figured this out.

That is the change that has happened I believe in the last 20 years with globalization coming into India. Many businesses have now family charters, they have family boards, they have a mechanism to identify the leader and in most cases, it’s amicable.

In India, 80-90% of the businesses are family owned and you don’t hear a lot of noises. Occasionally, you will hear something because it’s not possible that 100% of the time people will get long, so that’s fine.

If you were to look at the overarching landscape, what does it look like to you? Where do you think the next big wave is? Where would your bets be?

The impact of information technology will continue for the next 30 years. What is exciting is that IT is now being used in every field, in every industry and it is transforming every industry. Look at how retail has been transformed through online retail—what’s called e-commerce.

How we can now see taxi services being disrupted or hospitality services being disrupted by the use of technology, by the use of mobile phones. You can see disruption in manufacturing where a lot of the factories have become highly automated, which is again enabled through IT.

If you look at cars, which is a product of the automotive industry, that is getting transformed into self-driving vehicles—something like driverless cars or autonomous vehicles where you don’t have a pilot or you don’t have somebody driving that inside the vehicle but somebody is driving it remotely. So every industry is getting transformed and that is an opportunity for new models to emerge, new innovations to come out and change the industry.

In IT itself, we are now seeing the benefit of mobile technology where (more than) 3 billion people have mobile phones or smartphones and pretty soon probably significantly more number of people will have smartphones. And all these are powerful computers which can enable those people to connect and collaborate. It can allow them to share services, create new services. It can allow them to participate in the 21st century economies that are being created.

On top of that, we are able to put computer information technology on all physical things. What I mean by this is Internet of things. So anything that needs to be monitored and controlled can be done by putting computing on top of that.

Similarly, we are able to now connect biological systems with computing and communicate in new ways with biological systems. Using this technology we are able to understand biological systems significantly better and work at what is called code of life, which is the DNA and modify that using computing. So all these are exciting opportunities and this is what the future is going to look like.

I feel that there is a great opportunity to ride on these waves. IT was just one wave, now we have multiple waves because every industry is getting transformed. And we can pick and choose which wave we want to ride on and each of these waves will create significant opportunities for employment, job creation and wealth creation.

What we need to do is prepare ourselves by educating and training our workforce to take advantage of this. Gone are the days where unskilled or semi-skilled people could find good jobs. Today you have to be skilled, you have to be educated in order to get good jobs. The jobs that are created for unskilled or semi-skilled people would be unfortunately low wage jobs.

I finish my education, I start working and I retire after having given my best at a government job as a regular person. Then can I possibly give back?

Yes. See giving back is not about money. The best answer I heard from someone about giving back is from Warren Buffett, one of the richest persons in the world.

He was in Bangalore and I was lucky enough to share the podium with him. And he was doing an interactive session with people and a lady stood up from the crowd and asked Buffett, ‘You are saying that people must give back, but I don’t have any money to give back. I hardly survive, so how do I give back?’ And his answer was fantastic.

He said giving back is never about money alone.

He said, I give back what I never will miss. My family and my children will never miss the money that I give. You have something which is even more important, which is time. That one hour of time you volunteer for something, you will miss, your family will miss, you can never get it back.

Time is more important than money. Please volunteer time, a little bit of time, doing something for others.

What are the regrets that you have?

I have been lucky and I really don’t have any regrets. I also don’t look back and say, I should have done that, because you can’t change the past, so why bother? It’s about learning from the past and trying and seeing how can I use it in the future. How can I do things better in the future or differently in the future?

If you were to write your epitaph, what would it be?

I made a difference to some people. That is it.

(The numbers don’t matter) because there is always something bigger, something smaller, something different, so you try your best. The key is you try your best.

If we can help one person change their life, if you can impact one person’s life other than your own, I think that’s a start. And I have been lucky in the sense that the platform that Infosys gave, other platforms that I have got at this point like the Confederation of Indian Industry, Axilor… now we are helping many start-ups today.

All those things are ways in which we can help others.

What advice would you give them?

Well I have only one daughter, so the only thing that I tell her is to make sure that people appreciate what you do. You help others and that’s how it should be.

Is it possible to be good all of the time? Is it possible to be an idealist?

In some sense, we were lucky to be in an industry that has probably the least impact or influence of that. Now, can other industries be like this? I think it is how you work together to make it.

What is wonderful about the IT industry in India is that most of the first generation people are between the ages of 60 and 70, a 10 year period. In fact, that is very interesting to see globally, the leaders of this industry are 60 to 70.

If Steve Jobs was alive, he would be at this level, Bill Gates is the same age, everybody is around the same age between 60 and 70.

Then, there are next generation of entrepreneurs. By and large, the generation that started together is around the same age and all of us were reasonably well educated, had international exposure and experience and we have built the industry with similar values and similar beliefs.

There is a video on Nasscom which is quite interesting. Harish Mehta (founder member of Nasscom and former president/chairman and member of the executive council) talks about having to make a presentation in Russia as a part of a delegation. (The person who was asked to make this presentation had to present) four case studies and four different companies. They were competition and (he had) to make this presentation.

He said that’s fine. I am representing India and I will make that presentation. That’s what is wonderful about this industry. So, there are lots of such anecdotes in the itihaasa. And that is what I felt very good about. When we did this project, we were able to document these things.

I think that’s the reason why this industry reached where it reached and is seen as a showcase for what is possible in India.

You can also listen to the interview on www.foundingfuel.com

Charles Assisi is co-founder and director, Founding Fuel.

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