Cassidy: Vani Kola returns to India and shows startups there the road to U.S. markets and beyond

Vani Kola is a citizen of the flat world.

Kola, an Indian immigrant who I first met nearly 15 years ago, was making a name for herself then with a business-to-business software startup she launched from the Sunnyvale library. She cashed out her stake in that company, RightWorks, in 2000 when the company was valued at $1.25 billion and has since moved back to India. NUMBERAnd what’s she doing now? Helping run a Bangalore-based venture fund backing a growing number of companies started by Indians who believe their best bet is to make their mark in the United States.

“We started seeing some shifts,” says Kola, 49, managing director of Kalaari Capital. “We started seeing companies saying, ‘I’m building the company here, but I’m targeting the U.S. market or the global market.’ “

Kola says the increase in Indian startups seeking markets beyond India represents a sea change. But it’s a change, she says, that is so early in the making that it’s hard to know whether it’s a trend that will continue. In recent years, Kola has seen 50 or 60 Indian startups with global aspirations and Kalaari has invested in a half dozen of them.

“Could some great global companies come out of it?” she asks. “We’ll have to wait and watch, but we’ve been impressed by a number of the entrepreneurs who are interested in global markets.”

Kola, speaking by phone from a conference in Athens, says India has seen big changes, even in the past five or six years, that make it easier to go global with products dreamed up in India. First there is the availability of venture capital, which Kola says was nearly nonexistent in India when she returned in 2006. Second, there is a larger population of entrepreneurs, advisers and investors who built companies in Silicon Valley and have now returned to India with more of the valley’s go-big-or-go-home mindset. And finally, technological progress has made it much easier to run a business that has moving parts scattered around the world.

It’s true that we’ve been talking for years in Silicon Valley about how the world is shrinking (“flattening” in New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s words). And we’ve always known that startups breed startups, which breed more startups. But it’s not often that you see those truths personified as clearly as you do in Vani Kola.

After making her fortune in the valley, she returned to India excited by the prospect of helping her home country’s entrepreneurs launch companies aimed primarily at serving India’s huge population. But before she knew it, she was working with people like Ketan Kapoor, whose company, Mettl, provides cloud-based, automated skills assessment for hiring managers and others who want to gauge the skills of students, workers or potential hires.

Kapoor, armed with a $4 million investment from Kola’s firm, was in the valley recently scouting talent and office locations for his corporate headquarters, which he plans to move from India to San Francisco or the Peninsula. His decision to move was easy, he says. For starters, he’s eyeing Fortune 500 corporations and massive online course companies, like Coursera and Udacity — and those companies are in the United States. And the U.S. is a great staging ground for attempting to conquer the world.

“This is the hub, right here,” Kapoor says, sipping tea at a San Jose coffee shop. “The Bay Area attracts the global talent and if you want to set up a global company, this is where you should have your global start.”

Kola says Mettl is in a group of portfolio companies establishing a U.S. presence — including a medical records management firm, a tech support outfit and a digital newsstand that allows magazine publishers to easily present their content across multiple platforms, including phones, tablets and e-readers. Each company has its own reasons, but Kola says there is no doubt that operating in the United States brings with it a certain cachet for those going global.

“The benchmark for a blue chip company comes from these things: being validated and proven in the U.S.,” she says.

Vijay Radhakrishnan, president of the Kalaari-backed digital newsstand Magzter, says his company would never have been taken seriously if he hadn’t opened its headquarters in New York City, the nerve center of magazine publishing.

“There is a trend,” Radharkrishnan says by phone from Manila, where he was networking with Asian publishers. “People want to set up tech companies in the U.S. and then they want to establish the global business from the U.S.”

Radharkrishnan, an entrepreneur at heart, says his goal had always been to start a company in India. “It’s very strange for me to come and establish a business in the U.S.”

But the world, he’s found, is a very different place than it was even a few years ago.

And India, it seems, is embracing it.

Source: San Jose Mercury News Business

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