More nurture than education.
Growing up in a typical middle class family in India, financial literacy was ingrained from early childhood. More than my formal education, family conversations around budgets, a saving mentality and repurposing, helped keep my instincts sharp.
My family went a step further than just having these conversations. At 17, during one of my holidays, they trusted me with 10,000 Rupees and nudged me to test the waters of trading. I grew that Rs 10,000 to Rs 3.6 lakhs within a period of 2 years.
That was my first foray into the world of investments. I caught a glimpse of the excitement that comes from patiently researching and understanding the nuances of what levers impact the business the most and how we can profit from calculated risk taking. I knew then that I wanted to be in the world of business & finance.
After completing my undergraduate degree in Computer Science, I did my MBA in Finance, CFA and got into investment banking. With EY, I advised companies to the tune of $2B of fundraising, helping them with their M&A and complex structured credit products.
Having worked with some of the largest hedge funds and Big 4 consulting firms and on-road to becoming the country's youngest partner, I suppose I could have called myself “well settled” in a traditional sense. But something inside me kept gnawing at me to push the boundaries and carve a niche for myself. This entrepreneurial passion was further kindled by the start-up boom that saw the likes of Flipkart, OLA, UBER, and others thriving in India. I took the risk of leaving the safety of a cushy, well paying corporate job to build something impactful.
Trials and Triumphs in a dynamic industry across South East Asia and North America.
From overcoming the zero network barrier from Investment Banking to Tech, to forging strong connections within the tech community, I quickly realised that success in this field required more than just technical and financial expertise. It demanded adaptability, a deep understanding of market trends, and the ability to think outside the box.
Bootstrapping to Venture Capital Funding: My first company’s focus was to revolutionise the way healthcare was delivered in South East Asia digitally. With resistance to change, cash transactions and big bucks involved, as you can imagine, healthcare is one of the toughest industries to crack.
Going back to one of my previous clients in India, whom I advised earlier, we secured a $100K cheque, which helped us build V1 of the product. Being at the right place at the right time is vital to a start-up's survival. We had a good product, but adoption was slow as Doctors in India were unwilling to embrace change despite the fact that it would have benefited their patients significantly.
We pitched to one of the largest healthcare entrepreneurs who owned a large network of hospitals and business interests in Singapore and Malaysia. Coincidentally, he happened to be a Tamilian, which helped us overcome the cultural barriers. We landed a transformative investment, and over the next 2 quarters, we increased our revenues by 5x and our user base by 4x across South East Asia. With the newly gained customer base, the credibility of our platform increased multifold which helped with a quick adoption in India as well.
Eventually we gave our investors a notable exit within 2 years of starting up at a time when several competitors who raised hundreds of millions of dollars from storied investors went bust.
Time to choose: Post my exit, I co-founded my second company, Cardinality.ai to focus on a completely unrelated but impactful domain. With the experience I gained from starting, building and exiting the healthcare venture, I started a new company to transform the way Social Services like Child Support, Child Protective Services and Food Stamps are delivered in the US and Canada.
Health and Human Services (HHS) is a multi trillion dollar industry (the U.S. Govt’s annual budget for Health & Human services is $1.5 Trillion and is as big as their Defence budget).
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The competitors in this business were well-funded consulting companies who had an army of sales people, tens of millions of dollars of lobbying budget and deep networks within the government agencies.
Here we were, a bunch of brown engineers from Chennai, trying to disrupt HHS Delivery in North America. There were very few successful venture funded companies in the Govtech space, except the likes of Palantir.
I approached dozens of VC’s who didn't understand the business as there were few successful precedents. We had to sell our software sitting from Chennai to Government Agencies in the US as we didn't have the budget to open offices in North America.
My sister’s home was our first US office and I convinced my brother-in-law to leave his lucrative job at Microsoft to join us as COO for the US business.
A company of brown people selling software to some of the most secure agencies of the US government from Chennai was never easy.
We overcame that with sheer resolve, building products during the day, while writing nearly 100 RFP’s and an equal number of pitches. Finally customers saw the merit of our offerings; our platform was the best they could find in the market, at 25% of the price they would have paid to a large consulting company. Our first win was to transform Child Protective Services Delivery in a large State in the US where we won a $25M bid against the competition which bid at $100M!
I would say to my team- “God can help us win a deal, but we have to help ourselves to execute them.” The software we built and delivered helped transform the lives of children and families, making sure the vulnerable got the timely support they needed. If it didn’t work the way it was supposed to, the calls were not made to customer support, but to the Governor's office.
With this in the background, post our award, we gave our lives, sweat and blood to make sure the program we implemented and delivered was a success and boy, it was one of the most successful implementations in the Social Services ever. The program we delivered is still used as a benchmark for performance and cost efficiencies across North America.
Eventually we scaled that business to $10M+ revenues in 2 years’ time with 200+ employees across North America and India and finally exited to a strategic investor in late 2021.
TL; DR- Thank you is never a short message.
During the crazy times of starting up, I was fortunate that my family stood by me like a rock. My Wife Dr. Sangeetha, who was an accomplished dentist, along with my in-laws, raised our kids while I made 90+ trips in a year meeting customers.
I learned a lot from my parents who themselves were entrepreneurs and had family business from Chennai (a very rare feat for Tamilians of that generation) and they were pillars of support for me.
Connect with like-minded people.
To have people around you that support, motivate, and inspire you is priceless. They’ll help you through the most difficult days.
I was fortunate to connect with people who were on a similar journey to mine. The world is truly a global village. Most of my initial clients and partners were Tamilians or people of Indian origin, who understood the integrity and intent of our business. Having a similar background gave us the edge of better communication and easing out creases that would crop up.
I learned that the success of their respective companies is no coincidence. The exclusive founder WhatsApp group was where we shared our journeys with many other founders who inspired me in different ways. Toast to the founders who shared their stories, networks and experiences which helped me accelerate my journey.
Vijay Thirumalai is a serial entrepreneur and 2x Tech founder. He has built and successfully sold 2 multi-million dollar companies.
He is on his way to build his 3rd company in the Govtech space and has already scaled it to 8 figure revenues in a short period of time.
He actively invests in startups and runs an accelerator which advises entrepreneurs on their Go-To Market, Product Building & Capital Raising. He is based in Toronto and spends time between his offices in DC & Chennai.