Some people equate their net worth with their self worth.
Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO of Datawind, doesn’t need flashy accessories to define himself or the company he co-founded with his brother Raja. The Tuli family’s spirit of enterprise–grounded in deep-rooted spirituality– powers not just their devices, but also the company’s strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.
Datawind’s $37.99 (CAN) UbiSlate tablet/phablet may not enjoy the same cult status the Apples and Samsungs of the world do, but it’s safe to say, the devices are transforming the lives of the millions worldwide, thanks to competitive pricing that few can match.
Suneet, 46, cherishes his company’s success in the tech sector, but whenever an email from a remote school in Uganda or India with accompanying photographs of toothless children grinning as they hold the UbiSlate devices, lands on his inbox, the CEO admits to feeling especially fulfilled.
“When your business impacts something or someone, then it becomes fun,” Suneet said. “The real satisfaction comes when you can get people connected and excited about technology.”
The Garage Story
So many tech start ups in Silicon Valley and elsewhere can trace their origins to ubiquitous garages. The windowless spaces have served as an incubator to rock stars and tech mavericks alike. So, I asked Suneet about Datawind’s Garage Story.
Suneet’s says he’s the face of company, whereas Raja, 48, his intensely private older brother cheerfully and happily toils in the R&D lab, testing and retesting ideas to come up with innovative and low-cost solutions that don’t compromise on users’ experience.
“The story that gets missed is: Raja is the ideas guy whereas I am the sales/business execution guy,” Suneet said. “That was the case from day one and still is…I like gimmicks, while Raja has the patents and inventions.”
In the mid ‘80s, Raja announced to the family, he was pursuing computer engineering as opposed to civil (which happened to be the Tuli ancestry’s preferred engineering stream).
The Tulis immigrated to Canada in 1979 from Iran (because of the revolution) to put down roots in Fort McMurray, (Alberta). Lakhbeer Singh Tuli (Suneet and Raja’s father) started a construction company that primarily built bridges in remote areas of Canada. His sons spend the summers working for their father. One of the sites was in Pelly Crossing in Yukon.
One summer, the ever-perceptive Raja noticed staff cutting strips of technical drawings, feeding them into fax machines and then gluing the pieces back after the faxes went through.
Raja was convinced there had to be a better way. So, he hit upon the idea to build a large fax machine. He sourced the materials, designed the gadget and built one from scratch. This one could accommodate large format engineering drawings without mutilating them.
Fresh out of university and armed with a brand new dual degree (electrical and computer engineering), Raja approached his dad to loan him the seed money to commercially market the “World’s Largest Fax Machine.”
Tuli Sr. agreed to fund the enterprise. The fledgling company (Widecom) then hired experienced sales guys to market the product, but six months into the venture, sales were cold. There were no takers.
At this point, Suneet, a natural salesman, was pursuing his engineering degree at University of Toronto. He suggested to Raja they contact the Guinness Book of World Records (GBWR) and submit machine for consideration as the World’s Largest Fax Machine. Raja was skeptical, but Suneet convinced him. The fax machine made it to the silver book.
Then everything unfolded seamlessly. Fortune 500 magazine devoted a quarter-page to the Tuli brothers and their ingenuity. Weeks later, British Petroleum (BP)’s offshore offices in Newfoundland placed an order for 12 machines each costing CAN $20,000.
“In 1992, there were no prominent desis (Indians) in either Wall Street or Bay Street,” Suneet said. “Worse, there was a backlash against turbaned people (with flowing beards) because of the Iranian Revolution. So, when the fax machine took off, we represented a Made in Canada success story, a story, featuring young immigrant kids that had succeeded against all odds.”
The Tuli brothers were in their mid 20s when they made their first million, or rather $8 million.
The wide format fax machine was a timely innovation and a huge hit. The brothers floated WideCom on NASDAQ. This led to corporate giants like Xerox to come knocking, but the Tuli brothers passed on Xerox’s offer. In hindsight, one can bemoan their decision was a bit shortsighted, however, in the long run, it helped Raja and Suneet to explore new and emerging technologies, instead of resting on one laurel.
Their next venture (DocuPort Inc.) offered tech-savvy customers hand-held portable scanners and battery-operated printers. In 2000 the brothers launched Datawind Inc. in 2000.
“We always had our father’s support and learned from his willingness to lose and risk things,” Suneet said. “Our father paid for our tuition, for the seed fund of couple of hundred thousand dollars (for the fax machine) which was a huge amount that time. Having his backing told us, it was OK to risk and lose. But, that early success also provided us with confidence.”
Stay tuned. In the next part, Toronto Desi Diaries will reveal how the world’s least expensive tablet/phablet has been able to connect profit margins with philanthropy.