Gitika Srivastava is the President of Skyris Networks, a company that she co-founded with Benjamin Wilken and Carl Bosley in February of 2001. Skyris was acquired in August 2003 by Stirling Bridge which also owns Streamcast Networks – makers of the Morpheus file sharing product used by millions of users worldwide. Morpheus uses the NEOnet Platform which is based on the Skyris Technology
Srivastava, who did her Bachelors in Computer Science at Harvard University, was born and brought up in Jamshedpur, India. Her father is the Managing Director of Tayo Rolls, India’s leading Steel Rolls manufacturing company from the Tata Group. She is also a star basketball player and was captain of the Senior State team in Bihar, India.
She talked to Lokvani about her life and how she succeeded against all odds in a post-bubble era to create a company in the peer-to-peer space and sell it for profit.
You established a company as a senior undergraduate student at Harvard. What motivated you to take on such a challenge?
Carl Bosley, Benjamin Wilken and I had worked on a project in our algorithms and database courses in our senior year where we developed the technology on which NEOnet is based. We were influenced by the explosion of file-sharing programs after Napster’s rise to popularity and the failures of early peer-to-peer programs like Gnutella. Centralized hosts were a big problem for peer-to-peer communication. We decided to work on decentralized distributed indexing. There were many people at MIT working on this problem to enable reduction of number of hops required to find a file in a decentralized peer-to–peer network. The algorithm we came up with can assure that any file can be found with no more than 2.8 hops.
During my Junior year I was hired as an intern by CISCO systems. My job as an intern was to research companies in the Web Caching space which were either competing with CISCO or those that could be profitable acquisitions for CISCO. This research clearly showed me that there was a great need for distributed accelerated delivery of online content.
When we were working on this project I knew that it had great potential particularly for the delivery of high-bandwidth rich media content. I talked to Bosley and Wilken and we decided to form the company.
As a computer science undergraduate how were you able to get all the business knowledge that is required to form a company?
One of the advantages of being at Harvard is that undergraduates can take a few courses at the business school. I took a PhD level class with Professor Kip King who was then a professor at the Harvard business school. I wrote a business plan for the company as part of the course. Professor King later joined the advisory board. We entered the Harvard Entrepreneurship contest and were runners up. As runners up we received a small amount of money that we used to incorporate the company. I was able to put together a great team including our former TA and also someone who had interned at McKinsey. During our senior year, while our fellow students were looking for internships at Microsoft and Google, we were hiring people. Wilken’s father gave us an initial fund of $25,000 and that helped us get started. One of the people who decided to work for us was Francis H. R. Crick, whose grandfather and namesake won the Nobel Prize in 1962 with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins for discovering the double helix structure of DNA.
You decided to rent a house and provide room and board in return for work. How did you get such a creative idea?
I really do not know. As a company we had to make sure that we pay minimum wages. Perks like room, board and health insurance could be used as payment. We found that it was the best way for us to afford the talent we had.
How did your parents in India feel about you running a company at such a young age?
They were very supportive. I had not started a job and hence did not have a salary that I needed to give up. So the opportunity cost for me was very small.
Were there challenges along the way to the acquisition?
There were many challenges. Our age was a big factor against us. From the very beginning content companies like Sony, Yahoo and others were very interested in our product. We were very interested in having them as clients, but we knew that perhaps they would be slow in closing a deal to work with us at that time because they felt we were too young. Not having enough funds we had to let go of a few developers along the way. Carl Bosley, the brilliant developer who conceived Skyris technology that powers NEOnet could not handle the stress and quit the company. That was a big loss to us. At one point in time Don King the boxing promoter wanted to use our technology to distribute his boxing videos. Unfortunately he wanted to acquire the company rather than becoming a client and thus despite needing the funds we decided to turn down the offer. At one point we were really strapped for funds and Benjamin Wilken took up a full time job to support the company. In the end it all worked out.
What were the factors that helped you succeed? Why did not you give up despite so many odds?
My professor used to tell me that I am very persistent. I think it was his way of saying I am very stubborn. I believed in the product and did not want to give it up.
I really attribute the success to all the help I received along the way. Richard Shyduroff from the MIT Entrepreneurial Club introduced me to a wealth of people - most of whom joined my company in some form or another. Dick Green, from Entrepreneur America was extremely helpful. Paul Perry and Susann Luperfoy helped me with technology and product positioning. Sanjay Swamy, who also became an investor in my company, helped with business development. Arvind Acharya loaned me money for patents and my lawyers from Morse, Barnes-Brown and Pendleton were very helpful and very willing to take a risk in working with a startup that may or may not make it!. There were many others as well. I am pleased that I was able to pay back all the money that was lent to me with interest.
Structuring the deal with Stirling Bridge was extremely challenging. I wanted to make sure I watch out for the interests of all parties. My father was able to help me with this aspect drawing on his experience of being the Managing Director of Tayo.
What is next for Skyris and what is next for you personally?
Skyris's technology has great potential. It can be used for instant messaging, e-mail, telephony and for distributing large files such as industry reports, high bandwidth video and audio files or video games and software. Any area where people need to find files quickly I see Skyris technology being deployed. We can eliminate the bottleneck created by centralization and the inefficiencies of distributed technologies.
I am very interested in opportunities to invest in new companies. I enjoy looking at technologies, seeing what is unique about them and understand what problems they can address.
Do you think you faced any special challenges because you are a woman?
I did not feel that being a woman put me at a disadvantage. In our case the company was very small. I was the face of the company and people had no choice but to work with me. In some sense I feel perhaps I was lucky. I am not sure how things would be if the circumstances had been different.
You grew up in Jamshedpur India. What did you gain from the upbringing?
Jamshedpur is a unique town. It is made up of people who are mostly professionals and hence are very motivated to succeed. Children who grow up in that township do very well. Growing up in that environment I learnt to challenge myself.
Besides entrepreneurship and basketball do you have other interests?
I like to mentor people. I serve as a non-resident tutor for Harvard students. Students at Harvard sometimes get very depressed because these top notch students may encounter their first low grade. I tell them to keep focused and find a niche area to succeed. I am not a straight A student myself but I found my niche in computer science and later in entrepreneurship. I received a lot of help that ensured success of my company and my life. I am more than happy to give back. Helping people gives me great joy.
Thanks so much for your time.