Scaling mountains

It’s no coincidence that Pravin Madhani’s company K2 was named after the second-highest mountain in the world.

“Imagine looking at a mountain from the base,” he says. “You are impressed by its sheer size but you also realize how daunting it is to climb it.”

There is fear in your heart. “Will it work? Will it fail? I have a safe job now, but should I leave it and risk everything in the startup?”

And yet, you decide to climb anyway. “You prepare well. You have to enjoy the journey, even if it means running into wild animals, experiencing bad weather, and encountering other unknowns.”

Once you reach the top of the mountain, be prepared to be awed. “It’s really beautiful, really satisfying. It will be worth it.”

It runs in the family

When Madhani was a ninth grader in Mumbai, his father – a trader of forest products – was called away to an emergency travel. The boy was left to mind the office and negotiate deals with customers.

His father was happy upon his return. Apparently, the son had done a good job. But the younger Madhani realized, more than ever, that businesses at that time was inefficient. “This was India in the 1980s, and everything was done manually. The cost of computers was too steep for a small business.”

That episode convinced him that his life path had been set.

“I grew up surrounded by entrepreneurs – my father, my family, my extended family,” Madhani says. “It appeared that building companies runs in the family, and nothing less was expected of me.”

He pursued his natural curiosity of what made things work, and work better. He was admitted to the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai for college, and obtained a scholarship to the United States for a masters in computer engineering.

His father’s only piece of advice was “Start your business sooner rather than later.”

Soon after graduation from University of Texas at Austin he moved from Texas to Silicon Valley and set out to create his venture amid the challenges of starting a company in another country where “you had no backing and no infrastructure.”

He established Everest Design Automation in 1997 and Sierra Design Automation in 2003. Both were soon acquired by bigger companies. Between these ventures, he was also an angel investor but realized he wanted to do more than passive investing.

In March 2017, Madhani embarked again on doing what he does best – building companies. He started working on providing a solution to minimizing the damage from zero-day attacks. He no longer just deals with large customers. “Now, everybody needs security, from homes to small businesses to big companies,” he says.

“Today when there is an attack, everybody looks at signatures. Currently companies try to determine where the attack came from and what to do the next time it happens. But what can they do if it’s a first-time attack nobody has seen before? Those attacks which have never been seen before are called zero-day attacks and we protect against them.” he says.

One of the crucial challenges is to make customers understand the technology. “It is new and there will be skeptics, but that is something we are prepared to overcome.” The company launched out of stealth February 20.

Climbing lessons

The most important part of the climb is to believe in what you are doing, Madhani says. “Are you convinced that your product could address the pain points and change the world around you?” If you are, then employees, investors and customers will eventually see things the way you do. “You can convert anybody into a believer if you do your homework.”

Second, it’s all about the team. “There is no ‘I’ when you are working in a startup. It’s always a ‘we.’ It’s the team that makes things happen,” he says, adding that even the way the office is arranged in a way that encourages openness and teamwork.

“When there is a problem, you discuss and arrive at solutions together. There is no place for egos here,” he says.

Finally, always listen to the customer. “Many times you can get carried away by your ideas or where you think things should be. But your customers might have other ideas. You should be flexible enough to adapt to their needs and wants rather than the other way around.”

Persistence is a virtue that never goes out of fashion for entrepreneurs, Madhani believes. “You always do everything to improve your company and your product, to bring value to customers.”

Sure, there will be the proverbial wild animals and inclement weather. You will hear a lot of noises and run into blank walls. “But if you do not ask, the answer will always be ‘no.’ Only through asking can you find out the answer could be ‘yes.’”

A soft spot for education

Madhani is a member of the advisory board for the University of Texas in Austin and UC Berkeley. This is what keeps him busy aside from running K2.

“I have seen my own life change with good education,” he says. “So I talk to young people from every field, not only in tech, and I tell them that if they work hard for eight years, in high school and college, then they will have a nice 80 years after that.”

There is just no substitute for hard work. “Focus on learning, ask questions, always wonder you can do things better or differently, and put in the hours – long hours.”

On Saturday mornings, Madhani goes hiking in Silicon Valley, spending two hours climbing. “When you get to the top, the view of the valley is just breathtaking,” he says. It’s a great way to renew his commitment to keep climbing mountains, and more importantly, to relish the journey, every time.