INTERVIEW: Atul Jain, Indian American Finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year

Atul Jain, CEO, TEOCO

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Washington – A prominent Indian American entrepreneur figured in the list of Greater Washington finalists for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year (EOY) 2012, a program that honors entrepreneurs whose ingenuity, hard work and perseverance have created and sustained successful, growing business ventures.

Atul Jain of TEOCO features in this year’s EOY program, which originated in 1986 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to recognize successful entrepreneurs. Today the Ernst & Young EOY Award program has expanded to more than 140 cities in more than 50 countries around the world. The program in the United States has grown from the one program in 1986 to 26 programs this year.

Jain spoke to India America Today, outlining the challenges he faced over the years, his dedication to succeed and his message to the upcoming next generation of entrepreneurs.

What’s your reaction to this nomination and what does it mean to you?

Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year is a prestigious award. I’m thrilled that I’ve been nominated for the award. But in reality this award is not just a recognition of my achievement- it’s a recognition of the team that works at TEOCO and that calls TEOCO their home.

You seem to have a very good strategy of how to run a successful business. Would you like to share it with us?

TEOCO was built on the premise that you can be honorable, and you can be successful. When I first started the company, I used the slogan, “We’ll take care of our employees, they’ll take care of our clients, and that’ll take care of the business. And candidly that has turned out to be a very successful formula. We have built a business on a foundation of principles, ethics, and a concept of employee ownership. Giving employees a share in the success of the company. TEOCO is an acronym for “The Employee Owned Company.” And so while our culture and values are the ones that form the foundation of who we are, we also believe in shared success- ensuring that people who are creating the success participate in the endeavor.

What are the qualities in your professional life that contributed to this?

One of the qualities that I feel really has helped me is courage. I feel that when you try to build a business on a set of values and principles, often you’re put in a position where you’re asked to compromise those values and principles. And while courage is a very very important success criteria in business, in the context of a principled entrepreneur, it becomes even more important. And it’s very very important that a person trying to build a business on a set of values and principles have the courage to stand by them and to walk away from any profits and gains that would come by sacrificing those same values and principles. We define our core purpose as a company “to advance the practice of principled entrepreneurship.” What that means is that if we get to any success by compromising our values and principles, we feel defeated. And that’s something that everybody in the organization has come to understand and respect. As such, we have created a culture where people understand that being honorable is even more important than being successful.

What are the challenges that you’ve faced during your journey to this present position?

TEOCO is a software company that focuses on building solutions for telecommunications carriers worldwide. We provide solutions in the areas of network cost management, network routing management, things like fault management systems, performance management systems, business analytics, and so on. When you’re trying to provide these very complex solutions to carriers worldwide, and our clients are some of the largest carriers in this world, it’s a challenge to compete with companies that are extremely well funded, and TEOCO has always built on the profit generated from within. So we’ve had to compete against companies that were funded by venture capital; that had a lot of money to burn. And we’ve never had a rich uncle. We’ve always had to build our company from the ground up to make sure that everything we do can be supported by the revenue and profits that we generate. And that has been a challenge which I believe we have successfully overcome, because today TEOCO’s revenues exceed $100 million annually and we’re highly profitable, but it’s not something that’s come easy, and it’s not something that’s happened without a lot of pain and grit. In particular I remember the dot-com bubble, when everybody was hiring people, paying people all kinds of exorbitant salaries, and we still had the responsibility of running a profitable business. In those days the company was still fairly young, and it was in its infancy, in the first five years of its life cycle. It was pretty tough to compete in an environment when nobody else was trying to live by the same set of constraints that you were. But I feel that the fact that we stuck to our guts and said that we’ll only grow as fast as profits would allow us to, actually enabled us to have a very strong platform, a very strong foundation, and succeed when many others around us crumbled.

How have your Indian roots affected the way you do business?

My Indian roots have played an instrumental role in some of my thinking. My last name is Jain, I come from the religion of Jainism, and one of the principles in Jainism is a certain degree of detachment. And I feel that I’ve been able to use that detachment in a significant manner that has played to my advantage. There’s nothing that I want so bad that I’m really willing to get it at all costs. I have certain parameters that I want to live within, whether those be my values, whether those be constraints of profitability, whether those be constraints of, how far am I willing to push. I find that having a certain degree of detachment, perhaps having what I call detached attachment, meaning I want something, but I don’t want them so badly that I’m willing to get them at any costs, has really been something that I have been able to benefit from. I’ve also come to understand that in leading this organization as its CEO, I can’t make anyone do something that they don’t want to do. And in understanding that I can only focus on my values, my conduct, my beliefs, and focus on creating a positive work environment, but not really use the command-and-control method, because I truly understand that I can’t command anybody, I can’t control anybody. I can only control my soul. I can’t control anybody else’s soul. That is something that I understand fundamentally that comes from my Indian roots and it’s something that I feel has given me a certain amount of balance in my life. I try not to believe that whatever is happening to me- that I can dictate it, that I can command it, that I can control everything. And that’s very very different than what you find in a typical American CEO, where they believe that any success they get to, they drove to it, they accomplished it. My focus in TEOCO is really to create the environment where people are motivated to give their best. I can’t make people give their best, but I can certainly create a positive environment in which they want to. In which they feel that they share in the success, in which they feel they participate in the success, and participate in the decision making process.

Given an opportunity, what would you have done differently in your professional life?

I feel that there are three things I could say that I could have done differently. One is I feel that it took me a while to understand the value of really senior and experienced management. I believe that if I am given a second chance, I probably would have focused on getting more senior and experienced management to be a part of the company a bit early on. Second thing I feel that I learned, and am still learning, is the importance of sales and marketing in a business. I come from a background where I feel I didn’t really fully internalize that sales is the lifeblood of any company. You don’t sell anything, you don’t have a business. And it’s something that I feel I really still have to completely internalize, but I would put a much greater emphasis on sales and marketing much earlier on. And the third thing I guess that I would do differently is mergers and acquisitions. I felt that our culture would be diluted if we went for growth through an M&A process. I avoided doing that for at least 10 years. And I’ve realized in the last five years that M&A can play a very important role in the growth of a company, and I believe that if I was given a chance again I would probably look at it a bit sooner than I did.

What has been the driving force behind your success?

I focus my energy on creating as much joy for as many people as I can. And that really has been the driving force for me. You know, how many lives can I impact in a positive and favorable way. I feel that being given an opportunity to touch someone’s life, and impact it in a real positive way, is a unique opportunity and a privilege, whether that be an employee, a client, a supplier, or candidly a partner. And I feel that the more I focus on creating joy for people, not only do I get more joy, I find that TEOCO ends up being more successful. And that’s really been the driving force behind my passion and my desire.

What is your message for the next generation of entrepreneurs?

I want to share with the next generation of entrepreneurs what are the joys and challenges of trying to create a principle-centric workplace. I’m in the process of writing a book which is tentatively titled “At What Price,” and through this book I wish to share what are the challenges I have run into in the process of trying to create a principle-centric workplace. How did I overcome some of the challenges that I succeeded in, and what are some of the challenges I did not succeed in. I also write a blog, and the URL is In this I share some of the ideas that I feel have been instrumental to my journey, to my success, and it shares a little bit of the ideas that will end up in the book that I’ve talked about- At What Price. It is something that I plan to publish later this year, and it is something that has given me a great joy to actually look back and try to understand what are some of those things, and what are some of those ideas that I feel have been very very valuable that I would like to share with the readers. (IATNS)

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