From Puberty to Millionaire Indian Prodigy Builds Internet Empire
Suhas Gopinath started a software company at age 14 and has since become one of the most remarkable success stories of the Indian IT boom. Now he's 21 and runs a world-class business with 400 employees.
Kala Gopinath worries about her son, Suhas. He eats too little, sleeps too little; "This can't be healthy," his mom frets. She piles more vegetables and two idlis -- white dumplings made of rice and lentils -- onto the 21-year-old's plate. "Today he lay on the sofa until 4 a.m. working on his laptop. Then at 8:00 he went into the office."
Now it's noon, and Suhas has come home for lunch -- just a five minute walk from the office. "My mother insisted that my workplace be reachable without a car," he laughs.
Gopinath is the CEO and co-founder of Globals Inc. -- an up-and-coming IT company that produces Web sites and software, employs 400 people around the world and has become a national icon. The Limca Book of Records -- the Indian version of the Guinness Book of Records -- lists him as the "World's Youngest Chief Executive." Politicians in his home country celebrate him as the model Indian: Look what our young people can achieve!
"Why should I sell my baby?"
Suhas Gopinath could be chauffeured around in a big car. He could live in a penthouse or buy his parents a villa in a nice neighborhood in the suburbs. But instead, the family lives in a medium-sized house; he drives a small car; he doesn't have a trendy cell phone; and he doesn't wear designer clothes.
In 2005, an investment firm from Houston, Texas offered him $100 million for a majority stake in Globals. He refused, "after several months of discussion, admittedly." The reason for his negative response: "Why should I sell my baby?"
During the mid-1990s, the first Internet cafes began opening up in Bangalore, with one going into operation nextdoor to Gopinath's house. "My brother Shreyas took me there. I was fascinated. The Internet changed my life," he says. He spent every spare minute online.
He taught himself how to build Web sites. "He spent every rupee he had in the Internet Café," says his mother, disapproval still evident in her voice. Gopinath admits, "I had been a good student up until then. After I discovered the Internet, I was an average student." Before finding cyberspace, he had dreams of becoming a veterinarian.
The struggle for "Cool Hindustan"
In 1998, when he was 13, Gopinath launched his first website: www.coolhindustan.com. "I wanted to provide Indians all over the world with a forum to post public events, tips for eating out and everything else they're interested in," he recalls. The Web site became popular -- including with hackers in Pakistan. They attacked "Cool Hindustan" and replaced the Web site's logo with "Cool Pakistan." "That was a terrible experience," Suhas says today. He abandoned the project.
By then, talent scouts in Silicon Valley had already heard of Suhas Gopinath and the company Network Solutions invited the young Indian to its headquarters in San José, California. It was the first time he had ever boarded a plane and the first time he had been outside India's borders. "They offered me a job. They also would have paid for my education in the United States," he says. His answer, though, was no. "Why should I do for another company what I could do for my own?"
That's when he made the choice to become an entrepreneur. He was 14.
It was a decision that faced resistance from many sides. His parents pressured him to finish school and study something practical, and there was the temptation of a secure job. Indian law also proved an obstacle -- you have to be at least 18 years old to start your own company.
A Californian detour
Gopinath wasn't going to wait four years. He cheated: Along with three friends, he registered his company in San José. "Online, of course," he says. He wanted to name the company Global Solutions, but that name was already taken. He opted for Globals.
Today, he still regrets that he wasn't able to start his company in Bangalore. India's most important politicians know the young man. He was even granted a private conversation with President Abdul Kalam. "I told him that the age limit for starting a company has to be removed," Gopinath says. Kalam promised him support, but so far nothing has changed.
The law wasn't the only obstacle, though. Potential customers canceled their orders when they learned their business partner was barely 14. "Many people didn't take me seriously," he remembers. As soon as he began sprouting facial hair, he grew a moustache, though he has, on the advice of friends, since shaved it off.
Ultimately, Gopinath managed to overcome every obstacle. Word gradually spread about his company's abilities and Gopinath hired more and more people and opened up more offices. He became the boss, employer, and chief executive -- all in mid-puberty.
Most of his employees are just as young: The average age is 21 with the oldest being a ripe old 26 and the youngest 12. Gopinath is unable to give the latter a full time job -- that would amount to child labor. "But we gave him a computer with an internet connection," Gopinath says. "Now he works for us sometimes on Web design."
200 Customers the World Over
Meanwhile Globals has amassed 200 customers across the globe and now has offices in 11 countries with some 65 percent of company turnover coming from Europe. The young Indians have become particularly good at identifying unfilled market niches. They developed a software product for schools, for example, allowing teachers to easily enter grades and attendance and enabling parents to check that their children are showing up to class -- a kind of electronic class register. The Indian government was thrilled with the idea and recently contracted Globals to set up the program in 1,000 schools.
Now that he is 21, Gopinath is thinking of transfering the company headquarters to India -- even though some 125 people now work for Globals in San José against only 25 in Bangalore. What would happen to the employees in the United States? "We'll see," Gopinath says. "The new developments are coming mainly from Bangalore."
Going to university on the side
Bangalore would certainly be cheaper. Globals employees there earn between 20,000 and 25,000 rupees a month, the equivalent of between 400 and 500 ($540 and $675) -- a good wage in India, but still a pittance compared to the 1,100 ($1,485) that colleagues in Western offices are earning. "For us, money isn't why we work for Globals," says 22-year-old Gayathri Kumar, who is responsible for finances. "The atmosphere and the fun are much more important to us. There aren't any hierarchies here."
Gopinath's father, M.R. Gopinath, once a scientist at the Defense Ministry, now acknowledges that his son made the right choices during the last seven years. They are proud parents, but they still haven't let him go. "To us, it's important that he gets a degree," the father says. "Education is the most important thing in India."
His son has listened and is now studying engineering in Bangalore on the side. But it's difficult to find the time; he just skipped an exam because of a conference in Germany and the next chance to to take it is one year from now. At university, Suhas listens to lectures and even gives some himself occasionally, to people who are often decades older than he is.
Sometimes, he says, he's sad he didn't have a youth like most of his friends. They went to the movies while he sat in front of his computer and worked. And there's another thing: "It bothers me that even my fellow students call me 'sir,' take pictures of me with their cell phones or ask for autographs."
Gopinath shakes his head. "I never wanted to be a star."