Entrepreneurship the Indian way: A day with a Bangalore software-maker reveals business parallels

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BANGALORE, India-HealthAsyst CEO Umesh Bajaj remembers when the only computers allowed in India were self-assembled.

As recently as 20 years ago, the Indian government’s protectionist measures prohibited foreign companies from directly selling PCs. Instead, Indians imported microchips and built the computers themselves. In his first job as an electronics engineer for an Indian conglomerate, Bajaj crisscrossed the country marketing versions of mainframes and desktops made in India.

Today Bajaj, a 55-year-old born in New Delhi, owns his own Bangalore-based health care software company. With 60 employees, HealthAsyst concentrates on work outsourced from American companies.

Last month, six visiting Indiana executives used HealthAsyst as their door into India’s software sector. With Bajaj’s help, they established a team of Bangalore programmers for their new Indiana-based startups.

Bajaj’s story is a window into India’s burgeoning high-tech business sector. By the mid-1980s, he had joined Wipro, now India’s third-largest home-grown software company after Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys.

The job took him to Bangalore, which has always been an Indian technology hub. Fighter-plane maker Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. was established in Bangalore in the 1940s. It’s also the home of India’s National Aerospace Laboratories and the Indian Space Research Organization.

India’s government began liberalizing the formerly socialistic economy in the ’90s, stimulating today’s high-tech boom. In the midst of the upheaval, Bajaj spent years launching Wipro’s health care services division.

By the late ’90s, he had dreams of founding his own software company. So did many of his peers. Driven by Y2K fears, Western demand for Indian programmers was soaring.

“Wipro offered opportunity to be entrepreneurial within the company,” Bajaj said. “But still, I felt I wanted to do something on my own.”

Bajaj formed HealthAsyst in 1998, two years before the Y2K party ended and the dot-com bust hit. Because he’d concentrated on ensuring his company’s profitability from the start, HealthAsyst had cash reserves to sustain a year’s operations when the IT sector sagged.

Bajaj still makes sure to keep a year’s reserves on hand. He aims for just a 10-percent profit margin, plowing most of his revenue back into the business.

“I’ve gone through a hard patch once,” he said. “Fortunately, we’d saved some money.”

Indian business executives remain a cautious bunch, Bajaj explained, reluctant to take on debt. Their conservative mind-set was only bolstered when many Indians were burned by worthless stock options after the Internet bubble.

Startups like HealthAsyst struggle to attract talented software developers away from multinational corporations and their name brands. To entice them, Bajaj offers 20-percent salary premiums, plus job rotation, team recognition and continual training.

But that’s not always enough. In India, young people rely on their parents to arrange marriages. And parents want to see solid prospects for their children. The most attractive qualities in a potential son-in-law are an engineering education, a job with a big company, and an H1-B visa allowing work in the United States.

Sometimes, young programmers ask for a year’s hiatus so they can take positions with IBM, Dell or Microsoft-just to satisfy their future in-laws. They promise to return to startups once the marriage is settled.

In many ways, HealthAsyst’s offices look like those of any American company. The cubicles are smaller but otherwise identical to those in the United States. The most telling detail is the lack of personalization. There are no family photos, Simpsons figures, sports souvenirs or cat calendars cluttering desktops.

The split between male and female employees is about even. Shilpa Kumar, a 23-year-old female PDA developer, said software is considered a “safe” career option for young women. India is even starting to introduce maternity benefits. Expecting mothers are allowed 18-month leaves of absence-albeit without pay.

To allow its U.S. customers to effectively have access to workers 24 hours a day, HealthAsyst starts its day at 9 a.m., just as businesses stateside are closing their doors. There’s a tea break at 10:30 a.m. and a group lunch at 1 p.m. Mid-afternoon brings another tea break and the day winds down at 6 p.m.-but some people stay a bit later to finish tasks Americans are expecting to be complete when their offices open.

The work week is five days long, with Saturdays and Sundays off. HealthAsyst’s employees are entitled to 21 holidays per year, plus three sick days-although they say it’s unusual for anyone to take off whole weeks of vacation at one time.

But the main reason Kumar and her colleague Vivek Sreedharan stick with HealthAsyst is the daily challenges it provides. At a larger company, they’d be tiny cogs in a machine. Here, their creativity isn’t just appreciated. It’s critical.

“With bigger company, you go from project to project. There’s no ownership of work,” said Sreedharan, a 23-year-old HealthAsyst developer. “I’d like to work here six or seven years, then maybe start my own company.”

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