Hari Ravichandran grew his first startup into a multi-billion dollar business. Then his entrepreneurial DNA drove him to start all over from scratch again. He started Aura, a venture that has earned funding from top-tier investors like Warburg Pincus, General Catalyst, and WndrCo.
In this episode you will learn:
- Starting over
- Staying safe in our new digital world
- The importance of being intentional about building company culture
- Hari’s top advice when starting a business
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About Hari Ravichandran:
Hari Ravichandran is an entrepreneur and he has loved technology since he was 10. He programmed his first 8085 microprocessor at 13 and haven’t looked back. Hari spent the last 21 years building a start-up that grew to become a business that he took public with $1B+ in revenue.
In 2017, a trusted team and Hari returned to their roots and started Jump Ventures, a scalability infusion firm focused on creating, acquiring, funding, and launching innovative businesses. They believe in long-term collaboration and strategically investing in businesses with a focus on driving exponential growth.
As part of this journey, Hari launched Aura (formerly known as iSubscribed). Aura™ is a technology company dedicated to simplifying digital security for consumers. Committed to creating a unified platform of services, Aura uses adaptive technology to enable customers to manage disparate cybersecurity needs with ease.
Innovative personal identity protection and security products such as Identity Guard and Hotspot Shield, privacy products FigLeaf and PrivacyMate, and technology services including Intrust, an antivirus are part of the Aura family. Trusted by millions of customers, Aura is the digital halo that provides real-time peace of mind.
Hari is dedicated to bringing the best SaaS technology to consumers – which has always been the focus of his career. He loves building technology and seeing it at work. Visit their website www.aura.com or https://jumpv.com to keep up with them and get the latest news.
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Connect with Hari Ravichandran:
Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. I’m very excited about the guest that we have today. He’s a guest that has been there, has done it multiple times. On his last company, he was there for about 20 years, built it to a $3.5 billion business, thousands of employees, and now he’s at it again. When you’ve done it so many times, you’ve also developed certain things about pattern recognition when it comes to the execution, and I think that we’re going to be learning a lot today, and you are going to get inspired. So without further ado, let’s welcome our guest today. Hari Ravichandran, welcome to the show.
Hari Ravichandran: Thank you, Alejandro. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Alejandro: You were born and raised in India, so where in India and tell us about your upbringing.
Hari Ravichandran: I had a unique and interesting upbringing. I grew up in India and lived there until I was about 14 in the southern part of India. My parents ended up moving into the States. When they came back to India, after the basis of the two-year journey that my dad in the U.S., he wanted us kids to move out here to have a good set of opportunities and a good life. So I ended up moving out here when I was about 14, interestingly through our rotary exchange program. It was a unique and different way to come into the U.S. when you’re a young kid.
Alejandro: And, for you, your father was a really big influence for you to come here to the U.S., and it seems that for him, being in the U.S. was the place to be. What happened? He had to go back because he also had experience with the Fulbright Scholarship, the whole U.S. approach, and culture, and mindset, so what happened to him that really got him to say, “My son is going to be the one that is going to go there and make it happen.”?
Hari Ravichandran: It’s really interesting because this is again, you’re talking about the late ‘80s when he was here. It was sort of a big cultural divide between the countries that had a lot and the countries that didn’t, and India was still on a projectory where there were not a lot of resources, not a lot of opportunities, etc. I think the thing that struck him here was just the abundance of opportunity where if you worked hard, you had the right mindset, you expended the effort, and if you had the right set of circumstances, you could end up having a lot of resources and a lot of opportunities that may not be available in India. Because of the way this program was structured, he could only live here for a window of time, and then he had to return back and had to spend two years minimum there before he could come back to the U.S. So even during that window of time when he thought, “If I could get my kids to have a better opportunity and have them be in this country and have them be integrated from when they’re young, it could end up being a much different life than he and my mother had when they were growing up.
Alejandro: Actually, when you were in the airport, and you were coming here to the U.S., there was a phrase that your father gave you that stuck with you. What was that?
Hari Ravichandran: On the way out, you’ve got to imagine a kid that’s 14 who had never been anywhere, had never traveled anywhere, and had never been out of the house. Even when my parents were here, I was staying with my grandparents. On the way out, my father said, “Figure out a way never to come back.” That stuck with me, and that was a big dominant part of my childhood years as I moved to this country and tried to figure out how to make a life for myself and get integrated into the American way of life.
Alejandro: How did the entrepreneurship bug come about. Is that something that you developed, or is it something that you’re carrying from the family genes? What’s going on there?
Hari Ravichandran: It’s actually a little bit of both. My parents always were thinking around what different opportunities there were. They started a publishing company when desktop publishing was getting popular. My grandparents were in the book publishing business, so I got to see that a lot when I was a kid. After I moved here, a lot of my focus was on building a very stable, steady career. That’s really what I had been thinking about as I was going to college, etc. Then I had the good fortune of being out in California in the late ‘90s. I was out in Silicon Valley. I was living out there. It was a crazy time. It was insane. Everybody was starting a business. The dot-com boom was just starting up and going. It was like a dynamic, exciting, wonderful time to be part of the Silicon Valley culture. I really got the bug, and at that point, I thought, I see when there are people that are passionate about their work they’re doing how excited they get. It felt familiar from when my parents were doing startup-oriented stuff as well. So, at that point, I said, “I’m going to take a leap. I’ve got to go do something on my own.” I dropped out of graduate school and started my first company.
Alejandro: That’s a big deal because, in India, there is a lot of pressure for getting the really big degrees. And getting the shiny CV. I’m sure that in this case, you were able to get into one of the best universities in the world to study a program that I’m sure that everyone was like, “Wow!” back in India, so I’m sure for you taking the decision of dropping out was not easy, and I’m sure that your parents were thinking, “Are you serious, Hari?!”
Hari Ravichandran: That’s exactly right. There is still a lot of angst about it, I would say, for a decade after, but it’s just something about that time. This was the late ‘90s, and it felt like a whole new world order was being created. Everybody around me were people that were in school at the time. Yahoo had just started out of Stanford at the time. Hotmail had just come out of there as well. Excite, which was an earlier search engine that has come out of there as well. You just look at these things, and you say, “These folks are brilliant. They’re really smart. If they can do it, I can do it.” Like, why should I not take the step to go build something on my own? That, I remember, was very dominant back in my mind. I just kept thinking, “If they’re able to do it, I ought to be able to do it too.” It ended up being the right decision for me and for my life.
Alejandro: Your first company, Endurance International, was quite a success. Being the first company, it’s not easy to get it right on the first try, but you were very lucky, and as they say: luck and preparation meet opportunity. But in your case, how were the early days, and how did you bring this to life? What were the early days like?
Hari Ravichandran: You know, Alejandro, it’s like those overnight success stories where you’re going to spend years and years and years, and then suddenly, you’re like, “We’re now a success.” It wasn’t that different for us even in those days. So when I started it, I remember it was a very simple notion. I didn’t have these grandiose views of: I want to go change the world. I want to go build a multi-billion-dollar company or any of these types of things. I remember thinking, “I love the notion of entrepreneurship. I see a lot of people doing stuff on their own. I love the idea that if I can do something, I love doing, and I have control of the work I’m doing, all I really need to do is pay my bills.” It was as simple as that. That’s how I started. I was like, “How much does it cost me every month to live my life?” At that time, it was about $2,000 a month. I thought, if I can do something I love doing and pay the $2,000, then everything else above that is just gravy; it’s just extra dollars that I can get.” That’s the simple notion I started with. The next thing I thought about was, “What am I actually good at? What can I do that could be of value to other people? I know how to write code. The internet is just starting. So maybe I can help smaller businesses that don’t have a lot of technology-savvy to come to use the internet better, maybe get them to board over the internet.” That’s how I got started with the first business. Then it was a bit of risk-taking where you have to say, “Okay. This feels scary.” Entrepreneurship is in the zone where it can be unsettling, and you’ve got to take the lead. I remember this: when I was first getting started, I didn’t know how to get customers to come in and help them get started. I had been working at some micro at the time. I had saved up about $7,000 or so, and I thought I would go talk to people. I would ask, “How do you get customers?” People would say, “You should advertise. You should go to these magazines and advertise.” I took about $5,000 of the $7,000 that I had in savings and bought three ads on Wired Magazine, PC Magazine, and I think it was The Buzz Magazine, at the time, which was the third magazine. Then I put in my cell number, which had just gotten to be popular. Cell phones were just getting popular at the time, and I was doing my consulting job. I put all of this in, and I remember calling my parents and saying, “I’m going to take this big lead, and I’m going to put most of my savings into this thing to get started. My dad said, “If you blow the money, don’t call me for rent because I’m not going to cover this because you had a good opportunity.” So there’s stress there. For two weeks, I sat there, and I waited for the phone to ring. Nobody called, and I thought, “Man! That’s the shortest startup in the history of all startups. It’s only two weeks, and it’s already out of business.” Sure enough, one evening, I’m driving back home, and I get a phone call. I pick it up, and the guy says, “Hey, I’ve got a bookstore. It’s an offline bookstore. I want to get online. Can you help me do it?” I said, “Yeah, I can do it.” And that’s really all it takes. It takes that one thing, and then the momentum builds up, and it started working out pretty well.
Alejandro: What ended up being the business model of Endurance International.
Hari Ravichandran: We were helping small businesses use the internet better, so whether it’s in an email, web services, marketing services, the full bundle of solutions that help small businesses use the internet better. Again, enterprises have IT staff, small businesses. They’re very passionate. They build great solutions, but they don’t have a lot of resources. So for a very affordable price point, we’re going to get them online and get them to use our services.
Alejandro: Tell us about, also, capitalizing the business. How do you guys go about doing that?
Hari Ravichandran: It’s interesting. Again, to this day, I still believe this is the right way to do it, which is, wherever you can be very thrifty, in the beginning, to make sure that your product is working and customers are actually paying for it, try to be asked, direct as possible, which is what we did for about a year or two. Then when the model started working, then we went out, and we raised a bunch of venture capital. This was in the late ‘90s. We had Alta Ventures, Advanced Technology Ventures, and BancBoston Ventures. We raised about $30-ish million from them, and then we invested all of that money into our platform to be able to build the technology up so that we could scale lots and lots and lots of small businesses because they weren’t paying us very much on a monthly basis. That was the initial model.
Alejandro: And, obviously, a lot of ups and downs because here you were involved for a little bit over 20 years with this company, and now you’re involved with your latest one, which we’re going to talk about in just a little bit. In this case, for you, you were able to experience the dot-com bubble and the bust.
Hari Ravichandran: Yeah.
Alejandro: And here, you were also pressured. You had raised quite a bit of money, so all of those investors wanted to eventually see their liquidity event, and that was probably in the form of an IPO.
Hari Ravichandran: Yeah.
Alejandro: In this case, what was it like going through that craziness of the dot-com bust.
Hari Ravichandran: It’s crazy. It’s ups and downs, ups and downs, and all of Lakeshore windows of time one morning. You know, it was funny, Alejandro. I was 20 when I started this company, and the dot-com boom was so good, and the company was starting to go up and up. We made all of the passwords on our servers retire at ’22. So we thought we were in it for two years, and we were all going to make a lot of money, and then we were going to retire. Again, as a young person, that’s how your mind works. The thing about it is, after we raised money, which was at the peak of the market, the market started going the other way, and it was baffling. You don’t understand what is happening because you have this vision in your head of exactly how things are going to go down and what’s going to happen next. There’s this big jarring event where you’re like, “I didn’t expect it, and I don’t know what to do now. There is a lot of internal strife within the company itself, and there’s a lot of strife with the capital markets, externally, as well. So it was a very challenging time. We had a six-week window where we were going to run out of money, and we basically had to convert our entire business model from advertising focus to just what it was in the early days to a subscription business. We didn’t have a billing system. We didn’t have some of the engineering that was needed to be able to put plans in place for our customers, all this type of stuff. We had taken the company at that point, at the high point. The company was about 250 people. We took it down to 14 people. We were all out in the Boston area. We literally worked eight weeks non-stop. We were just one unit. We worked hard. We completely rebuilt a billing system, integrated all of the pieces we needed to, and then we took all of our free customers and made them convert to paying customers, whichever ones were willing to do so. That then became the lifeline to be able to build on top of and into a company that eventually got to be a $3.5 billion business.
Alejandro: We were talking about the dealmaking side of raising capital. I’d like to hear, too, because we typically talk about the acquisition side of things, but more from the seller’s point of view. For the people that are listening, they have heard from previous episodes about the book that I just launched, Selling Your Startup. In this case, let’s talk about the buyer’s point of view, which is, on your end, on Endurance International, you actually did over 40 transactions. So how was that integration process for you guys? How did that work out?
Hari Ravichandran: That’s a great question. As I was saying, as soon as the dot-com bust happened, we converted this thing to a subscription-based model. It was interesting. We had this big platform that could hold millions of customers. We only had about 20,000 when we converted people from free to paid, so we had to fill up all this capacity. The way we thought we could do it was to go buy other companies that had subscriber bases that we could then port to our platform. On the buying side, we went from—our first yield was a $30,000 company that we acquired to the last deal I did in 2015/2016 was a public company. We bought a company called Constant Contact for over one billion dollars. We went from the early stages all the way to the larger transaction size. The thing that we learned through it is, you really have to do a few things because if you are simply valuing a company based on what’s tangible, what’s there, just your numbers, what is the growth rate? What does your revenue look like? What’s your EBITDA margins and all of the metrics. People always come to the same viewpoint, which is: this thing should be worth between this and this, like some range, and it’s usually a tight range. The few factors that always were helpful for us is to look beyond that to say, “If we buy this thing for what it’s worth, but we put it inside a bigger system, what could that be worth as part of the bigger hole. That was one big thing. The second thing—if you are an entrepreneur, like myself, you know you have a lot of passion. You build things, and you work on things that you absolutely love building and working on. So many times, entrepreneurs are very focused on what is the right avenue to drive growth for the business? They may not be great at keeping their books and giving you financial audits and things like that. We always work really hard to not have it be a negative against entrepreneurs. We would actually go do the work on their behalf and then take all of the stuff that they had and put it in a format that we would understand. So, making their job easier for them which can also give you an edge, especially in this market where it really is a seller’s market right now because the equity markets are very strong, with lots of capital in the system. Entrepreneurs, if you’re about to go sell a business, you might have one to three different choices, so how do you win when an entrepreneur says, “I’m going to go with this person,” when the pricing is all in that pipe band, it’s that personal relationship. It’s how much are you making their life easier? Do you understand their vision? Do you want to work with them, and do they feel like, “I’m giving my baby to somebody that’s going to take good care of it.”? Those types of elements are always super helpful to us.
Alejandro: This is a company that you built from the ground up out of your garage, and eventually, you took it public. Finally, you decide to step aside and to go at it again with another company. What was the decision process like? I’m sure it was scary but exciting at the same time because Endurance was everything you knew from a professional perspective. I’m sure that was a pivotal moment for you.
Hari Ravichandran: It really was. When I left Endurance, we were doing just about $4 million of revenue every single day. We built that from zero, and I was doing about $1.2 billion in revenues as I was leaving. You incrementally keep on building and keep on building, and one day, it’s a big company. The thing I started noticing toward the end is a lot of my DNA was very focused on growth, building, etc., which, in a public setup, the way you build it is a little bit different than a private company. I really missed being able to build something from the ground up again and have it ramp-up. The most fun times I had, even if it was a small company, was huddled together with a group of really passionate people that wanted to work with you, being connected to the customer, thinking about what products we could build. I started missing that as we got bigger and bigger. What you see is definitely something that still sticks in my mind. I left Endurance. Five or six of us had left. We ended up subletting the small office space in the Boston area. The first day I went in, I pulled into this basement garage, and upstairs I knew my co-workers were upstairs. I remember thinking, what am I doing? This is crazy. We left this thing with 4,000 people and a billion dollars of revenue to walk upstairs. We have no product. We don’t know what we’re going to build. We have no employees. We have no capital, and we’re starting from scratch again. I remember thinking, Wow! This is really scary, and I haven’t felt scared in a while.” It actually was a good feeling because it excites you, it motivates you, and makes you want to push yourself, and gives you something to shoot for. The positive of it is, it really drives you, and keeps you young, and keeps you motivated, and I love that. Of course, the challenging part is, like many startups, you have to overcome a lot of hurdles to actually get to a place where you can be relevant in the market.
Alejandro: Tell us about Aura, your latest baby. How did the idea of Aura come about, and what are you guys doing?
Hari Ravichandran: In 2014, I had a personal incident that happened where somebody had filed a bank loan in my name. So my identity had gotten stolen. I remember thinking, “This is bizarre.” I go online and try to figure out what the solutions are for it. It was an overwhelming feeling because your feel like, “I’m not sure if these people are going to steal my money. What’s happening? I’m not sure how it will affect my family? How does it affect my credit?” I remember thinking, “It’s surprising to me that nobody has solved this issue.” I put it in the back of my head. We were still working on Endurance, so I was busy for a part of two years. Then, when we left, the other three guys had left Endurance with me at the same time. We were chatting and saying, “That seems like a big problem that’s going to keep on getting bigger. Data is getting used in a lot of negative ways against consumers and families. All of the capital is going toward enterprises and toward big enterprise security type solitons, and nobody is focused on the consumer, and there are around 50 solutions out in the market that get so overwhelming, you have no idea if you need a password manager, you need a VPN, you need other types of security for your IoT, transaction, monitor, and protection. Beyond that, when you start to add all of these up together, like a family might pay $80 or $100 a month for a particular solution, which is too much. So we thought: how do we use scale technology to take this very complicated, fragmented problem, create one solution around it, and keep the pricing of it much lower so people can afford it? We probably already see the pattern recognition here for small businesses. That was the same thing we were doing by putting a bundle solution together in an integrated manner to help them use the internet, and now we’re trying to do the same thing for cybersecurity for consumers. So that was a pattern we recognized. We were passionate about the problem. Our mission became to create a safer internet, which seemed very worthwhile. I’m a dad; I’ve got three kids, and I feel like as I see them grow up as digital natives, making sure that they have some security, some set of governance around the devices that they use and that they’ve been born into, basically, is something that is very appealing that I feel like in the long-term, is going to be leaving a mark and make the world safer for people.
Alejandro: How do you guys make money here?
Hari Ravichandran: We’re a subscription business. Typically, customers will pay us between $12 to $15 a month for the whole bundle of solutions through monthly plans and annual plans. It’s integrated, so it’s got all of your anti-virus things that you need, VPN, transaction monitoring, anti-virus protection, all in one for about $15. Now, we have about 1.57 million customers that pay us, so the company will do about $230 million of revenue this year, so we’re off to a good start, and it’s starting to ramp-up.
Alejandro: No kidding. You guys have been in business for just four years, so wow! It’s a rocket ship! In terms of culture, as well, you were coming with the advantage of having built a business to over 4,000 employees, so you really know how it goes from early to growth to ramping up, and maybe some of the constraints of growing so quickly, and all of that stuff. What have you learned about culture the first time around that you knew you were going to be implementing for your second time?
Hari Ravichandran: It’s really interesting. The first time, we didn’t think about it that much. It was such a fight to just stay alive and keep going. You’re thinking, “I’ll get back to building culture, and that’s going to be important.” But then you find, whether you like it or not, whether you’re going to work on it or not, there’s always a culture. It could be a good culture, it could be a culture you can influence, or it could be a culture that doesn’t develop because there’s a vacuum there. This time around—I was listening to Masters of Scale, which is a podcast that Reid Hoffman does. They were asking Reed Hastings a question, saying, “What do you think about strategy versus culture?” Everybody that is a really successful company always says, “My culture is great,” but it might be because their strategy was great. It turned out that there was a culture that’s part of the strategy, and now the culture becomes the dominant thing. I loved his answer, which was, “When I did my first company,” which is what Reed Hastings was saying, “I know we focus a lot on strategy.” They had a good sale. They sold it for $17 million. It was good that they sold it because if they hadn’t sold it, it would have collapsed. He said, “The second go-round, I thought, why would you not do both? Just because you have a great strategy doesn’t mean you can’t work on a great culture,” and that’s how he built Netflix, and obviously, it’s been a huge success story. I found that inspiring because, to me, why wouldn’t you focus on both of those elements where you have a great strategy that can drive a big-scale business. But make sure that the people engine and all of the people that are working on it really believe in the journey and line up behind the strategy, so building the culture around it. I’ll tell you another story. With Endurance, I remember we were at an offsite at the Ocean Edge out of Cape Cod with all of our executives, our board members, etc. I think the company, at that time, was doing about $750 million in revenues. I looked at the team, and I said, “We’ve gotten this far. It’s been a great ride, and now we need to figure out how to go from $750 million to $2 billion in revenues. People were all shaking their heads. They were all excited about the vision. That night, I was out having drinks with some of the executives, and one of them looked at me and said, “You said that you wanted us to go figure out how to get from $750 million to $2 billion. I don’t know if you realize this, but literally, for the first $750 million of revenue, you always just told us what to do. I don’t know how you expect us to go from here to there when we have no training, and we haven’t worked together as a team to solve problems on our own.” I remember thinking, “Oh, gosh. I’ve made a huge mistake here” because everything was so top-down, like go do this; go do that. I never let the teamwork together to try to solve problems, make mistakes, learn. So this time around, that is a huge part of what we’re very focused on, which is you have to be the arbiter of decisions, but can you give the team a lot of room to figure stuff out on their own, make mistakes together, know how to work through problems constructively, and build that solid foundation underneath them? If you don’t do that, you’ll get to some number, whether it’s $10 million, $50 million, $200 million, $700 million, and you can’t scale it beyond that. For it to scale, the whole machine has to work. That was a great lesson for me and something that we’re applying very carefully on the Aura site.
Alejandro: Got it. Quickly, here, how much capital have you guys raised to date?
Hari Ravichandran: We’ve raised about $400-ish million total. I guess $350 million to $400 million total. It’s been over a series of four or five rounds. Including the debt, it’s probably a little bit more than that. The most recent one that we raised was our Series E, where I think we raised about $150 million in capital in total. A lot of that being deployed, now toward growth, scale, and ramp-up.
Alejandro: You mentioned how you speak with the teams, how you prepare or get the mindset for achieving whatever goals are there in front of you. Imagine you go to sleep tonight, Hari, and you wake up in a world where the vision of Aura is fully realized. What does that world look like?
Hari Ravichandran: I had a good friend that once told me that when you set up the vision for a company, you imagine the world without your product in it first, and then you imagine the world with your product in it, and how has the world gotten better? For us, if we think about the full realization of Aura, it is such a massive challenge for us, not just in the U.S. but everywhere else. So people feeling safe and having a sense of wellbeing around their digital life would be the real realization of our dream. If families wake up and say, “I’m not particularly worried about somebody stealing my money, stealing my data, getting a whole bunch of annoying robocalls, and things like that which jam into people’s lives, and have the sense of wellness and wellbeing and feel like, “I’ve got my stuff covered. Somebody is taking care of it. I don’t need to stress for my family and me.” When that happens, I feel like we will have achieved our dream at that point if we can get there.
Alejandro: Nice. Imagine I put you into a time machine, Hari, and I bring you back in time to that point to where you were thinking about doing the dropout of Stanford and building your first company. If you had the opportunity of going back in time and having a chat with your younger self and giving that younger Hari one piece of advice before launching a company, what would that be and why, given what you know now?
Hari Ravichandran: What I would tell myself if I had to go back in time is: have the humility to keep your mind open, to learn from everything around you, and not feel that the journey is a manifestation of my own ego, but it’s about something bigger than that when you’re building something that leaves real tangible value for your customers, for your employees, and everybody else, and not have it be so centered on tying up my own identity with a thing that I’m building, but think about all of the benefits I’m deriving for everybody else around me by being much more openminded, learning a lot. That would have helped me a lot in my early days. When I was a young person, I was so driven by achieving and accomplishing and not thinking as much about the benefit I can drive, the outcomes I can drive for other people, how do you build something that has sustainable and lasting impact. That would have been good advice for me if I could go back.
Alejandro: I love that. That’s very powerful and very profound, Hari. For the people that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?
Hari Ravichandran: Definitely, I’m on Twitter; I’m on LinkedIn. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to drop me a note anytime. I love to always hear. If there are entrepreneurs that have questions, I’m happy to answer them. I love working with folks that are passionate and excited about ideas, so I would definitely love to engage in whatever way possible.
Alejandro: Amazing. Hari, thank you for being on the DealMakers show today.
Hari Ravichandran: Thank you, Alejandro. I appreciate the time. It was great. I really enjoyed that.
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