Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Vikram Sharma: "I Have a Deep Desire to Create Something. And a Rebellious Streak."

The founder of information security firm QuintessenceLabs discusses the perils of rushing into things too quickly, the power of silence, and the “Internet of Things.”

Vikram Sharma is founder and CEO of QuintessenceLabs, an information security company that uses quantum encryption keys to protect digital communications. Sharma was born in Chandigarh, India, near Delhi. His father was a diplomat in the Indian foreign service, and Sharma lived in numerous cities around the world before settling in Australia as a teen. Later, he built a few startups, including an Indian Internet services company and an IT consulting firm, before obtaining his Stanford Master of Science in Management (Stanford MSx). He also holds a doctorate in quantum physics from the Australian National University. In our conversation, Sharma discusses the perils of rushing into things too quickly, the power of silence, and the complexity of securing the “Internet of Things.”

In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?

Creating enduring trust for information exchange by harnessing quantum properties of nature.

What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?

Not to let the excitement of the moment take over when your instincts tell you to be more thorough. When considering new opportunities, you need to consider the entire range of outcomes and make sure you are well-prepared. In the heat of the moment, you can miss important details. At one of my previous companies, we entered a formal letter-of-intent agreement to be acquired. Everyone was optimistic and thought it was a done deal. There was a fervor around tech at the time. Other parties were also interested in talking to us about an acquisition, but our agreement precluded us from speaking to anyone else. After several months of diligence, the market collapsed, our buyer was unable to proceed, and that left us exposed. There were many sleepless nights. We had to rethink our strategy and finance the business with personal savings. We managed to get the business to a point where it sustained itself, but it never became a valuable business.

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great business?

Find something you are passionate about. More than just something you are good at, it should be something that strongly resonates with you. You need a sense that whatever you are doing can have a fundamental impact on society. That is a more powerful driver than material returns. You need to actively seek this thing. Often there is also an element of serendipity.

In my case, I ran an IT consulting group for many years. It was financially rewarding, but I was not passionate about it. We worked on more than 70 projects with the federal government. Each new project felt like a slightly different version of the same flavor. After an amazing year at the Sloan program, I took off for six months and decided to indulge my personal passion for physics. Steven Chu, a Stanford University physics professor, let me sit in on some of his classes. We touched on how our deeper understanding of nature through quantum physics offered the promise of new capabilities. He talked about quantum key distribution. It piqued my interest because of my background in IT and my passion for physics. I thought it had the potential to change the way we deliver information security. It just so happened that Australian National University was about to embark on relevant research. I joined their PhD program, and we achieved one of the world’s first demonstrations of second-generation quantum key distribution. That formed the basis of QuintessenceLabs.

What inspires you?

People who have found what they are passionate about and have the drive and commitment it takes to realize the vision they have seen.

How do you come up with your best ideas?

When I am not thinking about them. I am outdoorsy. A lot of the thinking around what is QuintessenceLabs today came from a trek to Everest Base Camp. It is a totally quiet environment. There is no technology. There are no vehicles. You are left to take in some of the amazing beauty of nature in its rawest form, and your mind is freed to think openly.

What is your greatest achievement?

The realization of a set of scientific ideas into cyber security products. With the “Internet of things” increasingly interwoven into our everyday experience, it is vital that we are able to trust our electronic interactions in a highly connected world.

What do you consider your biggest failure?

Attempting to launch an Internet services company in India. We did not think through very well what we were getting into and the challenges that would arise. It seemed like a good idea and the potential was tremendous, but we were not able to execute on it.

What values are important to you in business?

Integrity: doing as you say. I only say something if I intend to follow through. I expect people will do that for me in return.

What impact would you like to have on the world?

In the new “Internet of Things,” there are billions of devices connected to the Internet. Our lives are increasingly dominated by the exchange of electronic information. This is especially true for our children. I want to ensure that those communications and our relationships can be trusted rather than compromised by external threats. Otherwise the whole fabric of this wonderful era will be at risk. If we can create enduring trust amongst myriad devices — that would be a great impact to have on the world.

Why are you an entrepreneur?

I have a deep desire to create something. And a rebellious streak. I like to question the status quo. And I like to be in a position where you have some control over your destiny. Whatever mistakes you make or successes you achieve as an entrepreneur are directly traceable to your decisions or actions.

What was your first paid job?

When I was 17, I worked for the government decommissioning old mainframe computers. It was manual labor, pulling out wires and moving monstrous machines onto trucks.

How do you define balance? Are you able to achieve balance in your life?

For me balance, in the context of our company’s evolution, has been about persistence versus agility. When you are building a startup, traditional thinking often does not make sense. You need to have the hardheadedness to believe in yourself and persevere. But very rarely does it go precisely to the plan you sketched at the outset. So while you need to decide on a certain path, you also need to stay open and reassess your plan when necessary. We have scientists on our team who are responsible for keeping an eye open for new developments. And we maintain relationships with universities so we have insight into new discoveries in science. Sometimes at a startup, you set out to do one thing, but in the course of trying to do that you discover some other innovation which in itself has value. Very few entrepreneurs would say four years down the track that their company is exactly as they saw it on a paper napkin.

What is the best business book you have read?

Good to Great by Jim Collins, the sequel to Built to Last.

What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?

The idea that with technology, the world is flat. We are all interconnected now. That theme has fundamentally reshaped our society and will continue to do so over at least the next decade.