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March 15, 1999


Is Amazon flowing into India? Rakesh Junglee Mathur was at IIT Bombay. Recruiting. So, is the largest bookshop in the universe just getting bigger?Is Amazon flowing into India? Rakesh Junglee Mathur was at IIT Bombay. Recruiting. So, is the largest bookshop in the universe just getting bigger? Priya Ganapati
at IIT Bombay

Rakesh Mathur is back at school. But this time round, he is recruiting from the Indian Institute of Technology, where he once graduated from.

Email this story to a friend. Taking the pick of the best 20 students should be easy for, the legendary e-commerce pioneer, where Mathur is the vice-president.

Rakesh Mathur at IIT
Wipro-Siebel deal
Indo-Japanese JV
Taxman's e-snooping
Obviously, this time round the swadeshis should be asking a question bigger than the tired old brain drain crib:

Is Amazon finally coming to India?

Is this recruitment extravaganza in preparation of the invasion? But Mathur's lips are sealed. Perhaps, he guessed the question was coming and had the answer ready "No comments."

But nosy Rediff is not about to give up. Did you really come all the way to IIT for delivering a lecture or was recruitment the real agenda all the time? "Both. But with a bias towards recruitment. As an executive of Amazon, my high priority is recruitment on this trip. We are looking for any number of people. Anything between 1 and 100," Mathur laughs.

How much sense does it make for Amazon to hunt for talent in India? "This batch of students that we are hiring is a sort of trial process. If it makes good sense and if it works well then we will be definitely back for more," Mathur explains.

Currently he is looking for about 10 to 12 students from IIT Bombay and another 10 from IIT Madras, excited students claim.

Mathur reveals that "Amazon has never directly hired from IITs before. Those who are working at Amazon have done some sort of higher education in the US after IIT. So, we really don't know how much they are good just because of their IIT background. But we will try this batch out."

Rakesh Mathur's father H H Mathur, was a star professor at IIT Bombay. That gave young Rakesh the opportunity to grow on campus, even before he graduated from the same university. Does this not make him sufficiently confident of IITians?

"I am impressed with the quality of students. But one thing is that they are definitely not as aware as students in the US are. In order for a company to do recruitment, it is essential to look at both awareness and intellectual horsepower. People here come up with bright ideas but most of those ideas have already been implemented," Mathur points out.

And quickly, perhaps in lieu of an apology for the low awareness level, he reminds "Here you have ERNET (the government-run segment of the Internet) which is text based and is so slow. The mistake is partly that of the government and that of IIT."

Mathur Senior is not going to sit back and let his son from the US of A doubt his university. "I think students here are no different from those elsewhere."

The interjection freezes the discussion for a moment where two generations lock eyes and then blink, brushing off a potential argument that is not worth disturbing the lake view that the IIT guesthouse offers.

'Dematurisation', that's the idea

At the IIT, this is the second year for 'Crossroads', an annual two-day festival to help students access information for making career decisions.

This year's theme was 'Careers on the Net'. And there are few among IIT's alumnus who are as qualified as Rakesh Mathur to deliver the lecture on the subject.

Mathur was first noticed with his Junglee Corp start-up. catalysed e-commerce on the Web by comparing rates for a particular product across Web stores. In effect, Junglee was building a mega e-commerce store.

Shocking advertising strategy brought brand recognition to Junglee even outside the online community. In one ad, Rakesh Mathur cross-dressed! It was on cue from another Silicon Valley CEO, Katrina Garnett, who featured in her company's ad, wearing a revealing black cocktail dress.

But little of that flamboyance was visible in Mathur when he delivered his lecture, littered with jargon of recent coinage, all pertaining to the techno-economics of Silicon Valley.

Mathur was eagerly selling the idea of being a "Netpreneur" to the Lecture Theatre in the Main Building.

"The Net changes everything. There is a great deal of immediacy in terms of people and companies that need to be on the Net. All the people are connected in real time to all sources of information," he enthused. Then the usual examples of Yahoo! and Amazon flowed.

"In a short time of three years Yahoo! has a larger market capitalisation than The New York Times and CBS combined. It has 50 million customers who come to Yahoo! first because of their services. Yahoo! has thus taken a mature industry, that is the media, and dematurised it. Now if you look at, it has dematurised commerce," he explained.

"The Net is now at a strategic inflexion point. All individuals and careers are going to be and will be made now on the Net," he declared.

He advised, "Extreme customer obsession is what it takes to survive on the Net. You have to love your customers and take care of them then the competition takes care of itself. Be scared of the customer, not the competition. Customer data is the key asset in e-commerce," he said.

"The point is that incredible wealth has been created by creating new ways of doing old things," Mathur summarised.

The screen behind Mathur then lit up with a short, sharp list, counting "what it takes to make it big in business today".

Dream big: Have the biggest possible dream. Most people achieve only subsets of their dreams so why limit yourself?

Fail frequently: Failure is not to be viewed as stigma. Make new mistakes each time and try to correct your old ones.

NGU: Never give up

Have fun: You have got to have a good time. If you don't, then do something else.

It is all about people: Work with teams that you admire. Do everything in a way that you can hold your head high.

To a question by a student as to which is more difficult, getting the idea or implementing it, Mathur stressed that both are equally important.

"You have got to be imaginative and willing to free yourself from traditional constraints. As long as you don't give up and get a little better each day you will get there. But you should also be fortunate enough to build a great team," he warned.

Mathur, who has been visiting India once or twice every year, is convinced that he or Junglee could not have achieved the same amount of success if they were based in India.

Mathur postulates an "inverse square law" to prove this point. 'The success of your company is inversely proportional to the distance of your company from Palo Alto.'

"There's an allure to the place itself. And there are a lot of other critical factors that make it easy for a start-up there," he defends.

My son's father

The other Mathur, Professor H H Mathur, who once taught chemistry at IIT, busied himself videotaping son Rakesh all through the lecture.

"Once I had an identity of my own. But now I am only known as Rakesh Mathur's father," he laughs.

But Mathur Senior must be modest. Despite the star presence of his son, his popularity with the students has survived past retirement.

IIT's in-house fortnightly Insight insisted on 30-minute interview with Professor Mathur who has been the gymkhana president and the dean of Hostel-3.

But Rediff wanted to know only one thing from the distinguished professor. So, what do you think of Rakesh now? "He is my only son. If I had two or three children, I could have said, I love him more. But he is my only son," he beamed.

Rakesh Mathur is nostalgic of the days on campus. "I had a blast for the five years I was at IIT. A large part of what happens here is because you are around a bunch of bright like-minded people. But IIT doesn't do a good job of nurturing creativity. You are in a rut. Your analytical skills are pushed along but there are not many lessons on the interaction front and on seeing the big picture. I guess I had those qualities in me. Plus, I am basically stubborn and hate authority of any kind," he laughs.

When Rediff turned to Mathur Senior with raised eyebrows, he defended "I never imposed any kind of authority on him. I never even asked to see his report card. If he showed it, it was okay. If he didn't, I never asked for it."

That must be true. Later in the day, Rakesh Mathur refused to reveal his 'grade point average' when at IIT!

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