Mountain View, CA
Born in Chandigarh, a union territory, Sabeer Bhatia is most popularly known as one of the co-founders of ‘Hotmail.com’. Bhatia grew up in a modest, middle-class family. His father was an army official while his mother worked for the Central Bank of India. Bhatia’s early schooling was split between Bishop Cotton’s School (Pune) and later at St. Joseph’s College (Bangalore). For his bachelor’s degree he attended the prestigious Birla Institute of Technology (BITS) at Pilani (Rajasthan), where he qualified for a transfer to California Institute of Technology. Impressively, this is perhaps one of the most competitive scholarships and Bhatia was the only applicant to attain a score of 62, in the entire world.
In 1988 Bhatia landed in the United States. At CalTech, Bhatia was surrounded by like-minded individuals. He has fond memories of how he was pushed to ‘develop the ability to think on [his] own’ and credits his success to the same. This freedom to think and be creative was new to Bhatia. Unlike the Indian education system, where knowledge is expected to be retained, American education is more about exploiting knowledge. Bhatia enjoyed this, so much so that he immediately pursued a master’s degree after his time at CalTech. He made the journey north to study electrical engineering at Stanford. It was here that he attended talks by Steve Jobs and Scott McNealy. Their stories, their vision, and their spirit encouraged Bhatia to reconsider his career path. So after concluding his master’s program, he joined Apple.
Bhatia realized in order to become a successful entrepreneur he needed to brush up his skills and gain experience. After a brief spell with Apple, he left to join a start-up called Firepower Systems. 2 tough years on the PC processor-making company found itself in tough spot. Bhatia found himself split between two choices – go back to school or start his own company. He enlisted the expertise of a friend, Jack Smith, to partner him in a new venture. Bhatia was fascinated by the internet and the scope it presented and in a textbook ‘lightbulb’ moment, the idea of creating a free-webmail service struck. After Smith came up with the idea on a rather normal drive home, Bhatia worked late into the night devising a business plan. The following morning, they started approaching venture capital firms for funding. After being rejected by 19 firms initially, the duo struck gold in their 20th meeting. Draper Fisher Jurvetson invested $300,00 for a 15% stake and on July 4th 1996, Hotmail.com went live. The name, rather fittingly, was derived from HTML – the language in which web-based coding occurs, and hence was written as ‘HoTMaiL’ in its early days.
Even though Hotmail received tons of publicity in its first few months and subscribers grew from 100,000 to 5 million within a year, Bhatia recalls the immense amount of work that came with the success and the long 14-15 hour days. After the launch of RocketMail, Hotmail hit an all-time low. It struggled to make money, and with Microsoft eager to buy-out the founders, Bhatia and Smith had a tough decision to make. The first round of negotiations went on for a long two months but to no avail. Bhatia’s reputation of a tough negotiator began to gain much validity. To make matters more challenging, there were strong reports of Microsoft eyeing RocketMail as an alternative to Hotmail, but Bhatia persisted. After rejecting offers of $300 million and $350 million, it was on New Year’s eve of 1997 that Microsoft announced a formal takeover for $400 million.
Following a stint at Microsoft, Bhatia left to start and lead more companies. ‘Arzoo.com’, an e-commerce firm, providing technological solutions and support, was Bhatia’s idea of bringing a platform to the internet that would become the largest network of intellectual capital. Two years after retiring Arzoo, when the dot-com bubble burst, Bhatia relaunched it in 2003. This time as a travel portal. Next up was Sabsebolo, which is reported as being one of the largest free-conferencing service. AMP Technologies followed – an analytics tool for commercial real estate, before Bhatia ventured into the telecom industry. Jaxtr. a mobile application that allows users to send free messages on mobile, caught on big. This prompted him to launch a prepaid SIM for travelers. Originally, operational in 4 countries – the US, UK, Canada, and Mexico – it is now providing cheap and efficient service across the globe. Most recently, Bhatia forayed into the Indian real estate market. He envisions a ‘Silicon Valley 2.0’ and has partnered up with Parsvnath Developers to set up a knowledge city in Gujarat. The project will reportedly spread across 4,000 acres.
It is no surprise that Bhatia has received prestigious awards for his success. He was named ‘Entrepreneur of the Year 1997’ by Draper Fisher Jurvetson; MIT shortlisted him for the ‘TR 100’ award – given to 100 young innovators ‘who are expected to have the greatest impact on technology’; and in 2002, TIME named him one of the “people to watch” in international business. Bhatia may not be one of your textbooks CEOs who runs a multinational corporation. But he clearly personifies the saying, “some people are good at running empires, some are good at building them”.
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