Scoring big as an entrepreneur is rare. Doing it more than once is rarer.
Luck can help, and so does having some sharp business insights.
Ashish Bahl, a self-described serial entrepreneur, is on his third financial tech firm. He sold his first after only a few months to iXL (no longer exists) and his second for about $150 million to American Express.
His current company, Atlanta-based Acculynk, has a patented system enabling online consumers to pay a growing number of businesses by entering a secure PIN when they use their debit card — just like at an ATM. The technology — an online PIN pad — scrambles the numbers so they’re not intercepted during transmission.
Bahl, 47, had an unusual childhood, fleeing Kenya with his parents during a troubled time. He recalls what happened, as well as how he became an entrepreneur and what he’s learned.
Q: You came to the United States under unusual circumstances. Would you please discuss?
A: At the ripe old age of 7, I was put on an airplane in Kenya with my parents — my dog and my toys left behind — to go to the United Kingdom.
I was completely shocked about being uprooted. The reason was (Ugandan leader) Idi Amin had been spreading a nationalistic doctrine. There was fear that the uprisings and killings would spread to neighboring nations, like Kenya.
British citizens in Kenya were worried. We were British citizens. I was born in Nairobi. My father, a doctor, was born in Nairobi. His parents were born in India. They went to Kenya seeking a better life.
But being risk averse, my father said, “We can get a flight out and we’re all leaving.” We literally left all of our possessions in Kenya and flew to England, which was our staging ground. After a year, we showed up in the United States, settling in Pittsburgh.
Q: Was it hard to adjust?
A: The English school system is very rigid. You’ve got your gray wool pants, your white oxford shirts and your blue blazers.
Then you move to Pittsburgh, home of the Steelers, where everyone is in jeans and T-shirts. So you look like an oddity when you show up. In my Italian neighborhood of Pittsburgh in the mid-1970s, they didn’t know what an Indian was. They thought we were Sicilians with British accents who dressed funny.
I learned at a young age how to adapt, how to listen, how to persevere. It’s helped me a lot.
I became an average American kid. But there was an immense pressure, because of my Indian background, to succeed academically. The reason for that is that Indians who tend to leave India are often the best and the brightest. They’re the ones who can get out. So education-wise, there was tremendous pressure for me to knock it out of the park.
Q: How did that play out when you were choosing a career?
A: I was getting pushed hard by my father to pursue a medical career. Back then, he thought you were either a doctor or you were a nobody. But being ADD, I didn’t have the patience to pursue a medical career.
I majored in engineering at Vanderbilt, but I’m not detail oriented. At the time, I was intrigued by Wall Street. After graduating, I worked there in a financial training program for a year. Then I went back to Pittsburgh to become a stock analyst by day, and get my MBA at Carnegie Mellon at night.
I then became a management consultant in Atlanta in financial services. A-year-and-a-half into it, everything happened for me.
Q: What happened?
A: As a consultant, I was working for the chief information officer for Wells Fargo. He wanted to know what the bank needs to invest in as the Internet comes of age. This was 1995.
I gave him six ideas. He said I could do one of the ideas and Wells Fargo would be my first client. He would give me a $1.5 million project.
You’ve got to be at the right place at the right time. You’ve got to be able to engage people. You’ve got to establish an element of trust.
My idea was that financial services will be transformed by the Internet. Companies are going to have to put all their products on the Web and have real-time quotes. Banks are going to have to do bill payment on the Web, etc.
I started my business with a big contract from Wells Fargo. I shed the risk aversion from my father. I had a very different DNA. I did not want to end up in a small, enclosed world.
I was getting big contracts. But I was only independent for 60 to 90 days when I got an offer to merge with a bigger firm, iXL, which I did.
Q: You left iXL before it got into trouble during the dot-com bust in 2000-2001 and started another company that did electronic invoicing for businesses. You then sold that company, Harbor Payments, to American Express in 2006. You’re now building up a third company, Acculynk, in the financial technology sector. What’s a key lesson?
A: In technology, there’s a tremendous war for talent. Often, you cannot hire enough good people to sustain growth or quality.
But if you can have a business with very few key individuals, all playing critical roles, largely dependent on patents and a data center, your risk is substantially mitigated and your stress level is, too.
In my electronic invoicing business that I sold, it did not require incremental humans for growth. It required capital and a big data center.
In the consulting business, you can only grow the revenue if you have more humans. But in a transaction processing business, the growth is not commensurate with humans. You set up the infrastructure and bring on clients. If you build your product properly, you can grow exponentially.
We never go into commodity markets. We look for things through patents or specialized products that differentiate us. It’s not my personality to set up a me-too company.
Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation, called “5 Questions for the Boss,” with a top executive in Georgia. Some remarks are edited for length and style.