Sabeer Bhatia (Mr. HotMail)

Smart Finance

Considered the Indian jewel in the crown of the information superhighway, Sabeer Bhatia was raised in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. Aged just 19, the gifted computer whiz kid moved to California with $250 in his pocket and a head full of ideas.

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A successful scholarship at the California Institute of Technology was followed by a Masters from Stanford University and a stint at Apple Computer. It was while he was there that Sabeer Bhatia found something that would sooner than later transform his life and revolutionize the world of internet: The Hotmail had arrived!

Frustrated by a corporate e-mail system which did not allow them to communicate privately, Bhatia and his college friend and colleague Jack Smith hit upon the idea of a simple, free and secure way of talking on the net. They called it Hotmail.

Before Hotmail was launched, Bhatia worked for Apple Computer, and then a start­up company, FirePower Systems. Jack Smith, his founding partner at Hotmail, was his colleague and buddy at the two firms.

The idea for a free email company did not come out of the blue, Bhatia explained. For over a year Smith and Bhatia toyed with the idea of a Web based database server and tried to interest venture capitalists in their first venture, JavaSoft. However, realizing that the response was lukewarm, Bhatia and Smith were looking for another idea when they hit upon a Web based email server rather than a database server.

Sabeer was only 27 when he decided he was not going to work for others. He said he was making ‘money‘ when he worked for others, but he wanted to make much more than that by working for himself. He was also aware of the advice someone gave him that the biggest risk in life was not to take a risk at all.

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He feared that had he continued working for others, he might not have had the guts to start something of his own. So, with Jack Smith, he decided to chase what many people in the Silicon Valley thought was a crazy idea, a free email service.

Together, the two men raised about $300,000 for their venture. While soon other free email services jumped in, Hotmail remained at the top because it was markedly different from competitors. One didn’t need to download software and install it in the computer to access the email.

It was so revolutionary that in less than two years of founding it, Bill Gates, who’s Microsoft, had its own email service, and wanted to buy Hotmail. The prudent Sabers, who had as a school boy sold sandwiches to make pocket money, took his time on the initial $160 million offer and then closed the deal at a cool $400 million.

Selling his company to Microsoft was yet another gamble for Bhatia. And, getting out of Microsoft and planning yet another venture is another daring step. While it took America Online over six years to build up its customer base, Hotmail grabbed over 11 million subscribers in just two years. “Our strength was we solved the problem that other companies created,” he had said in an earlier interview.”We did not restrict people to access their email from just the computer on which the software was installed.”

“And because we were not restrictive, there was global access for Hotmail account holders. They could do it as easily in India as here in California or any other country in the world.” Even in the digital age, someone had commented, the American Dream lives on.

Sabeer Bhatia’s innovation brought an unshakable belief in the transforming power of technology in his home country, India. No wonder, then, that 30 per cent of the software engineers in US corporations hail from India. The Times of India daily recently named him as one of the Indians of the Century, a honor which, he shares with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammad All Jinnah and Sunil Gavaskar, the famous cricketer of yesteryears.

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He was raised a Hindu and in a way he was one, but he does not believe blindly in destiny. He tries to make his own destiny.”In the long run, it boils down to a simple fact,” he says, “How much of faith does one have in oneself.”

With his Ferraris and an apartment overlooking San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Sabeer Bhatia had it all. Work hard; play hard seemed to be his motto. 18-hour days in the office were complemented by a frantic social life: he told one newspaper,” from 6 p.m. Friday until Sunday, I’ll be partying in New York.”

“I don’t want to be branded Mr. Hotmail for the rest of my life”, he said recently and there is no doubt that his dynamic blend of East and West will make itself known again sooner or later.

He was chosen for the ‘Entrepreneur of the year’ award (1977) by the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and named to the “Elite 100”, the Upside magazine’s list of top trendsetters in the New Economy. He was also the recipient ofthe”TR100″award, presented by MIT to 100 young innovators who are expected to have the greatest impact on technology in the next few years, and selected by the San Jose Mercury News and POV magazine as one of the ten most successful entrepreneurs of 1998.

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