For a chief executive officer (CEO) who is soaring high on success, Vinod Vasudevan appears to be rather unassuming a person, reticent even, when we meet up with him on one of his fly-by visits home to Thiruvananthapuram the city. “I’m here just for a day, having flown in this morning from Bonn, Germany. Tomorrow, I’m off to Nairobi, Kenya, and later Dubai,” says Vinod, almost apologetically, for dragging us out to work on a Sunday evening. But, beneath the quiet demeanour and those nerdy spectacles, it’s easy to spot the spark of intelligence that has seen him lead Flytxt to great heights. Flytxt is a big data analytics-powered solution provider for the telecom sector and a pioneer in mobile advertising and marketing solutions. The Technopark-based company, founded in 2008, which employs more than 350 people across the globe, was recently chosen by NASSCOM’s Emerge as one among this year’s ‘League of 10’ – top 10 technology start-ups in the country. Then again, considering his stellar academic record and an equally astral career in telecommunications spanning 20 years, it’s like Vinod is programmed to succeed!
Hailing from, what he describes as “a thoroughly middle-class background of modest means”, from rural Changa on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, and brought up in the Vanchiyoor area of the city, 46-year-old Vinod has always been a high achiever. And that’s right from his school days (St. Joseph’s Higher Secondary School) and his college days at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur. “I cleared the State common entrance test for engineering with the first rank [in 1984], but I had already qualified for IIT by then. So studying in Kerala was never in the scheme of things. At first, in Kharagpur, I was like a fish out of water. In fact, it was the first time that I had gone out of Thiruvananthapuram district, travelling all the way to rural West Bengal,” recalls Vinod.
He was so involved in his work there that unlike many of his peers, he chose to remain at Kharagpur for his masters and later his PhD. “My research was on neural networks,” he says. Come again? “Machine learning, pattern recognition, and so on... It was my thesis for my undergraduate studies and I was intrigued enough to continue with my research,” explains Vinod. He also took up a post at the institute for a while afterwards. “I can speak okay Bengali,” he says. “Kharagpur has given me some amazing experiences and lasting friendships too. Ask my wife, Suchitra, and she will tell you that my college friends are my only friends!” he adds, with a laugh.
Japan and top-notch lab facilities at Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation soon beckoned the keen researcher in him. Vinod, then newly-married, moved to Tokyo, where he won much acclaim for co-inventing the landmark ‘Active Search Algorithm’, a high-speed visual search method. “Those two years in Japan was extreme experiences of two kinds – with zero English language skills on their part and zero Japanese on ours! My work was very satisfying, but life itself was very difficult because of the language barrier. Remember this was in the mid-90s before the world really opened up,” says Vinod.
Next destination: Singapore, where he worked in “applying technology to create mobile content”; work that also kicked off his continuing engagement with the telecommunication industry. By 2000, though, the technocrat had shifted base to the Bay Area in the United States (U.S.), this time as an entrepreneur with the start-up NewsTakes. “We developed the technology to convert direct satellite feeds from news agencies such as Reuters and Associated Press to content for mobile phones. In this regard, I was in our London office and saw the first ever news feed of the 9/11 attack. Initially, people thought it was a prank! I was stuck in London for four days afterwards.”
9/11 also put a wrench in the business and soon after Vinod and co. decided to sell the technology and close shop, Mumbai-based Reliance Communication offered him the position of Chief Technical Officer, wireless data. “I never really wanted to settle in the U.S. So when the opportunity arose to return home, I was more than happy. I gave up my green card. In 2002, they [Reliance’s Mukesh and Anil Ambani, before the split] wanted to set up a network of 10 million customers when, at that time, there were only four million subscribers in the whole country... At first, I thought they were crazy!”
Nonetheless, Vinod was intrigued enough to accept and spearheaded a number of “interesting projects” at Reliance. What he means is widely successful ventures such as the Rs. 500 phone that had video and apps (“ Kabhi computer, kabhi mobile , if only we had called it the app store!”); introducing the now ubiquitous internet dongle (“we released an ad that showed people using internet on the beach”); paving the way for wireless transactions (“before that there were only 29 cities in India where you could use a credit card!”), to name but a few. When Vinod left Reliance to helm Flytxt, he was Senior Vice President Integrated Services, basically responsible for everything other than traditional voice calls and sms.
“I’m fortunate to have got good breaks in my career, progressing from academics to basic research to applied research and then running a start-up to working in a large corporate, and now Flytxt. Each step was a good transition, just at the right time. Now, all my focus is on turning Flytxt into a truly global enterprise.”
One of the mainstays of running a company like Flytxt, says Vinod, is all the travelling involved. “Neither do I like travelling nor do I dislike it. In fact, I travel the world on work at least 20 days of the month. Few are the major cities in Asia, Europe, America and now Africa [since Flytxt started operations there a few years ago] that I have not visited. South and Latin America’s up next. Hopefully soon...,” he says. What he does enjoy is exploring cities. “I make sure I walk around each city that I visit at least for a couple of hours. In Europe it’s fairly easy because most cities are built around pedestrian-only city centres. In places like Nairobi, I walk around to find local eateries. It’s one of the best ways to understand a culture.”
Vinod’s wife, Suchitra, is a teacher by training, who now works in human resources at Flytxt. The couple have got two kids, Viswajith and Lakshmi.
Vinod’s father K. Vasudevan Pillai is a former principal of a Government School and his mother, B. Vijayakumari, retired from the sub-registrar office. His brother is a material scientist with Intel in the United States, while his sister is a teacher.
When not navigating the corporate world, Vinod likes to kickback with “semi-fiction”, books such a Freakonomics (what else!). “I enjoy reading but rarely get the time nowadays – not even while travelling. I’ve told myself I’ll catch up on my reading after I retire!”