It Changed My Life: He came from India with just $50 and pocket full of ambition

Anurag Srivastava is co-founder of four successful and very different firms today

He arrived in Singapore in 1993 with just $50 in his pocket. Today, Anurag Srivastava is a venture capitalist and entrepreneur. He is also trying to eradicate homelessness through design and technology

In Singapore's start-up circles, Mr Anurag Srivastava is sometimes referred to as Shah Rukh Khan.

One can understand why. Like the Bollywood icon, the India-born Singaporean venture capitalist is tall and makes quite an impression with his deep voice, lush crop of wavy black hair and sartorial smarts.

He may not make his living appearing in movies, but his life is more than script-worthy.

The 53-year-old came to Singapore nearly 30 years ago, never having travelled out of India or tasted pasta. All he had was $50 and a pocket full of ambition.

Today, he is the co-founder of four successful companies: interior design firm Space Matrix, product life-cycle management outfit Sconce Solutions, animation studio One Animation and venture capital (VC) firm Jungle Ventures.

Space Matrix has offices in 15 cities across eight countries, Sconce has grown about 20 times since 2007 and is now headquartered in the United States, while Singapore-based One Animation has content broadcast in more than 180 countries. Jungle, meanwhile, is one of South-east Asia's oldest and biggest early-stage VC firms with an aggregate enterprise value of US$4 billion (S$5.5 billion).

He is also the co-founder of billionBricks, a non-profit group tackling homelessness.

He was born, the elder of two boys, in the industrial city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. He grew up in a house filled with books on ferns and fungi as his late father was a teacher with a PhD in botany and his mother, a housewife with a Master of Arts.

"My father would buy rotten vegetables and put them under the microscope," he recalls.


Mr Anurag Srivastava, co-founder of one of South-east Asia's oldest and biggest early-stage venture capitalist firms. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Although he could barely manage it on his modest salary, his father sent him and his brother to a private school, believing a good education was their ticket out of the city.

Mr Anurag developed street smarts and good interpersonal skills early on, mixing as he did with both kids from poor neighbourhoods and the more affluent students in his school.

 
 

Sporty and academically strong, he earned a highly coveted spot to study electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur.

His life might have turned out differently if he had his way. Clearing the entrance exam for IIT, he says, was also a ticket to get into the Indian Merchant Navy.

"It was one of the best-paying jobs so it was glamorous: money, ships and travel. I wanted it," he says.

His parents, however, put paid to the idea, especially since he got into electrical engineering, which admitted only the best students.

"Looking back, I probably would not have survived that (navy) world. I still don't know how to swim; don't be fooled by that swimming pool," says the father of three, looking out to the pool which curves around his rented and beautifully appointed Sentosa Cove bungalow like a moat.

Electrical engineering, however, was no walk in the park.

"There were 45 of us, the other 44 were absolute geniuses who'd tell the professor what he was teaching was wrong. I knew it was a race I was not going to win. I barely survived."

He found validation in other areas, like transforming the university's culture festival into a "college start-up" with singers, artists and competitions.

Upon graduation in 1988, Indian multinational HCL Enterprise hired him to sell computers and technology products. His gift of the gab and people skills served him well; he soon became the top salesman for the company.

Five years later, he hit upon the idea of starting a company developing accounting software.

"My boss asked me what would make me stay. I said if you gave me the opportunity to go overseas, I would postpone my start-up plan," he recalls.

A posting to San Francisco was duly arranged but shortly before the trip, he was told he was going to Singapore instead.

He did not quibble.

Mr Anurag co-founded non-profit group billionBricks which produced weatherHYDE, a life-saving emergency tent.
Mr Anurag co-founded non-profit group billionBricks which produced weatherHYDE, a life-saving emergency tent. PHOTO: ANURAG SRIVASTAVA

"I was just so happy to get out," says Mr Anurag, who was given $50 and three days to get ready.

He paid $350 to rent a room in Choa Chu Kang, and spent the first few months extremely homesick.

The demands were big for someone who had never travelled out of India: He had to sell computers and software to corporations here and in territories including Taiwan and Vietnam.

"I'd go to Taiwan and sell hardware and they'd be like: 'Are you serious?' ", he says, referring to the island's reputation as an innovator in the computing industry.

"But they'd meet me because they were intrigued. It was very daunting but the experience was phenomenal," he says, adding that he signed a deal to sell motherboards to the Taiwanese.

 
 

Five years passed. By then a permanent resident, he felt it was time to explore greener pastures especially since he had racked up a hefty credit card debt.

His next stop was selling software to tooling companies for Boston-based company Parametric Technology. The lure? If he hit his sales target, he would make US$100,000 in commission.

"I told myself if I made it, I could pay off my debts and go home," he recalls.

Making cold calls to tooling companies like Fu Yu Moulding and Tooling to sell software costing US$50,000 was a hard slog.

"By the end of the third month, I had sold nothing and the company said I had 30 days left," he says.

But he pulled through, and earned more than US$140,000 in commission by the end of the year.

His boss then threw him a gauntlet: go to India, build a US$4 million business in a year. The reward if he succeeds: the post of regional director of South-east Asia.

"He also said: 'If you don't make it, you don't have to come back.' "

Off he went to Delhi. Living out of the Sheraton in the city, he went on a hiring spree, built several offices and met his target before the year was up.


This is the last of a four-part Audemars Piguet series on rulebreakers who thrive on challenges and boldly forge their own paths. PHOTO: AUDEMARS PIGUET

 

He also met his architect wife Shagufta; the couple married in 1999.

His ascent was meteoric: He eventually became vice-president overseeing South-east Asia, India and Australia.

By 2004, he was Asia-Pacific vice-president of software company Interwoven, making $800,000 a year.

He ponders when asked what has helped him to succeed. Agility - to learn, change, adapt emotionally and drive results - is important, he says. So is self-awareness. Finally, one must also learn to trust one's gut and take risks.

Which was exactly what he did when software company Endeca came a-calling, offering him the London-based role of international vice-president.

However, it came with a massive salary cut, made worse by tax rates in London which were about twice that of Singapore's 22 per cent.

"They said: 'You are taking a salary cut but we will give you equity and you are investing in the company.' "

He took it, convinced that a global role in a technology firm would considerably beef up his CV. He made the decision despite a potential opportunity to become chief executive of Microsoft in India.

It could have been the stress of being away from home, or the pressure of being surrounded by people who "only talked tech but not sales", but London was a disaster, at least in the beginning.

A crisis of confidence so overwhelmed him that he started seeing a counsellor on his bi-weekly trips back to Singapore. Mr Anurag decided to throw in the towel after a few months, but was persuaded by the company to stay for a year.

"They said: 'The reason we brought you here is that this company only talks product and we wanted you to bring the culture of business here.' "

He agreed and over the next six months, beavered away to find a replacement and get the company on track. He achieved both, and got his mojo back.

"I'm glad I did not abandon the ship. Because if I did, I would have asked myself if I could only do it in Asia, not elsewhere," he says, adding that Endeca was acquired by Oracle in 2011 for nearly US$1.2 billion.

The next turning point came courtesy of his wife, who founded Space Matrix. She asked him to come on board as co-founder, and grow it.

He agreed and came up with a business plan to expand operations and grow the company's revenue from $1 million to $100 million in five years.

He more than succeeded. As Asia's second-largest premier workplace design firm in its category, Space Matrix today rakes in $175 million a year.

Ms Grace Sai with Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands in a panel discussion about the journey and struggles of a start-up founder held at the Unilever headquarters in Singapore in 2018. Co-working start-up pioneer Grace Sai is co-founder of Found8,

In the process, Mr Anurag - who has been contributing to various charities - became a philanthropist.

When one of Space Matrix's architects Prasoon Kumar decided to quit in 2013 to start billionBricks, Mr Anurag not only came up with the money but also helped to structure a business plan and came on board as co-founder.

The outfit has produced award-winning products including weatherHYDE, a life-saving emergency tent which protects the vulnerable from extreme weather, and powerHYDE, the world's first carbon positive home for the homeless, which not only produces energy but also generates income for the families who own them.

Since its inception, billionBricks has helped to house thousands of homeless people in poor communities and disaster zones in eight countries across the world.

"Coming from where I did, welfare has always been on my mind. It's hard to see people without food or homes," says the articulate man, who also supports Ability Aids India International, a charity which helps deprived communities.

Mr Anurag also went on to successfully co-found Sconce Solutions and One Animation.

One Animation is officially recognised by YouTube as a digital influencer: Its hit Oddbods show - about seven characters wearing coloured furry suits - has earned two Emmy nominations for best children's animation, boasts nine billion views across different digital platforms and has 8.5 million subscribers on YouTube.

Realising that he has a sharp nose for good ideas and a keen eye for spotting talent, the astute investor decided he could help people build businesses which set out to solve problems.

The key to savvy investments, he says, is to ask oneself three key questions.

"What problem are you solving? How deep is this problem? Is there a market and, if so, how big and how ready is it?"

 

His strengths - raising capital, finding partnerships and taking businesses to market - saw him co-founding Jungle Ventures with corporate development veteran Amit Anand in 2011. They have another managing partner David Gowdey.

"We will only invest if all three say yes," says Mr Anurag.

Since its founding, the firm has invested in about 40 start-ups across the region, with US$352 million of assets under management.

In its early years, it backed tech-led companies which are now market leaders, including fast-fashion e-commerce retailer Pomelo and online hotel management and booking platform RedDoorz.

In its third round of funding last October, the firm raised US$240 million from investors including Temasek.

"Our top seven companies have a combined valuation of US$2.5 billion, which is probably 10 or 12 times of what they were worth when we first invested in them."

Seeding new ideas is something he reckons he'll be doing for a while.

"Don't forget, I'm the son of a botanist. I like to see things grow."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2020, with the headline 'He came from India with just $50 and pocket full of ambition'. Print Edition | Subscribe