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March 3, 2000

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Rakesh Mathur's Karma Yoga

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Shanthi Shankarkumar

Purple Yogi may be his fourth start-up, but Mathur insists he is not a risk-taker.

"If I got to Las Vegas, I don't bet more than 5 or 10 dollars," he says, deadpan. Lots of people however are willing to gamble on this inveterate start-up guy with an impressive record. His shopping-technology company, Junglee Corp, was sold to in 1998 leaving him with about 225,000 Amazon shares.

Last year, he quit Amazon to join a company and two other Indians -- Ramesh Subramonian and Ramana Venkata -- in what promises to be yet another ambitious venture.

The name of the new company -- 'Purple Yogi' -- might suggest otherwise, but Mathur is as buoyant and upbeat as his Junglee days. He laughs easily and heartily -- life seems one big guffaw for him.

"Only three per cent of start-ups succeed in Silicon Valley. If you can deal with the probability of failing 97 times out of 100, then you must do start-ups," he says with a lusty laugh.

Mathur, 43, was in fact all set to go on a well-earned 18 month vacation, last year when he was persuaded by Subramanion and Venkata to become a Yogi. Not that Mathur totally abandoned his holiday plans. He did manage to squeeze in a shorter holiday before committing to Purple Yogi.

"The idea is BIG and I love it. I really love the team and my partners. I was planning to take a long vacation to get my energies back to devote to another project, but I got my energies back without the vacation," laughs Mathur.

So, besides wanting to make money, what drives Mathur?

"Making money is certainly a measure, but I personally don't measure success as wealth. I'll never be as rich as many people and I personally don't care. For me, the drive is creating something that'll change people's lives for the better," says Mathur, serious for a change.

For Mathur, nothing can beat the satisfaction of having a product or service used by millions of people. Also, there is the inexplicable pleasure in contributing to the success of a whole lot of people.

"At Junglee, roughly the 70 employees who moved with me to Amazon are now millionaires. Their lives have changed and they have the freedom to do what they want," says Mathur.

For Mathur, the one year he spent at was a loaded experience in more than one way. Obviously, he left with more than just a bulging bank balance. "Jeff (Bezos) and I have a pretty good relationship. I have incorporated a lot of what I have learned at Amazon in Purple Yogi. Jeff does things in the clearest ways. One of his mini-sayings is: 'You work hard, have fun and make history, and two of the three is not an option!' He also believes in an intense love of the customer. He would always say, 'Be scared of your customer not your competitors'," he says.

Competition is not something Mathur mulls over either. Purple Yogi is attempting to cut through all the extraneous data on the Web, learning people's interests to bring them just the articles and resources they want. Other companies have tried this, with mixed results, so what makes Mathur confident that he will succeed where others have not been able to?

Besides, the company intends to do this without keeping central records of customers's interests and activities. Mathur dismisses the notion that something similar to Purple Yogi has been tried before.

"I don't know if people have attempted to do what we are doing. We are building the highest-trust Internet company. What we are creating is a scenario where we know nothing about the customer, unless they chose to let us know. Our client software learns information about you based on how you use the web. I'm confident I have a product that does not violate anybody's trust and privacy. Earning the trust is based a lot on how well we execute," said Mathur.

Set to launch in two, three months time, Purple Yogi has had only in-house trials and, according to Mathur, "Everybody has been blown away by it-absolutely."

As for Mathur, the prospect of re-enacting the huge success of Junglee is a high he just can not resist.

"I try and improve by a factor of ten each time I do a start-up," he says, adding with a dig at himself, "otherwise I'll have to take that long vacation!"

Mathur's career path does not read any different from the other Indians who have made it big in Silicon Valley. A graduate of mechanical engineering from IIT, Bombay, he did his MS in industrial engineering and operations research from the University of Texas, Arlington. He worked with Intel before he got hooked on start-ups. Sona Computers and Quixel were his successful ventures before his topper, Junglee.

"Even as a child I have always had the freedom to explore and do what I wanted. Nobody has ever told me that there were limits," he says, providing some insight into his extraordinary fascination for new challenges.

Mathur continues to maintain his ties with India -- his parents are based in Bombay, but are right now with him in Seattle. His father, Professor H H Mathur, taught chemistry at IIT, Bombay. Last year, Mathur made six trips to India -- and, in fact, Purple Yogi will set up a 100-strong operation in Bangalore this quarter.

"I am not doing this to cut costs, but to access talent. We will be hiring people at salaries according to local conditions but I want them to have as much stocks as they would if they were to come to the US. That is only fair," he says.

Unlike other quick-rich Indian entrepreneurs, Mathur takes his role as a catalyst of economic development in India very seriously. He is determined to use his resources and talent to make a difference in the lives of Indians.

"We have made a difference to the economy here and I know we can make a lot of difference to the lives of people there too. I have got two job descriptions -- one is a technology entrepreneur and investor and the other is a student of economic development of India. I don't know what the solutions are, but I do know there are so many leverage points," he says earnestly.

Mathur is married to a venture capitalist, Deepti, who, along with Intel and others contributed to his seed round of $ 4 million venture capital.

Mathur's irreverent side came to the fore when he crossdressed for an ad for Junglee. The ad brought the attention he was seeking for Junglee. He wore a black dress and put together an ensemble for a very limited budget of $ 165 . The dress was bought online using Yahoo! And the Junglee shopping service.

"I would have had a hard time going to Bloomingdales," said Mathur who had a ball doing a take-off on an ad featuring Katrina Garnett, the CEO of Crossworlds, in a sexy, black cocktail dress.

Would he be game to don a purple dress for Purple Yogi?

"If there is a right kind of PR approach -- it might have nothing to do with women's dresses or kinks -- I'll do it... Whatever is the right thing," he laughs. Maybe it is time he took that vacation.

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