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Suneet Singh Tuli: The World In The Palm Of His Hand

by JOHN O'HANLON

 

 

Suneet Singh Tuli was only 11 and his brother Raja Singh 16 when their civil engineer father, Sardar Lakhbir Singh, left India.

Lakhbir came from an entrepreneurial Sikh family and wanted to give his family the best opportunities he could. He did well; the boys flourished at high school and followed one another into the University of Toronto, Raja taking computer engineering and Suneet opting for civil engineering.

In the late 1980s, the disruptive technology of the moment was the fax. It was possible to send a document from one end of the world to another in seconds, to the consternation of FedEx, UPS, DHL and other organizations that made their money by shipping documents.

However, the Tuli family knew only too well that faxes could only handle small format documents. A4 was fine but the drawings architects and civil engineers use, measuring feet across, still had to be couriered.

Lakhbir was delighted when his elder son, having graduated, turned his skill to developing a wide format fax machine.

"My brother didn't have to go out and look for funding - he just had to convince my father that it was worth hiring a couple of people irrespective of whether he believed a product would ever be created," explains Suneet.

That level of confidence certainly helped grow the innate entrepreneurial qualities of both boys, because as soon as he too had graduated Suneet joined Raja in the new firm, WideCom.

With no manufacturing or marketing background, the pragmatic brothers had to learn quickly.

"Nobody wanted to buy a CAN$20,000 fax machine in pairs from a couple of new graduates, because you had to have one at each end!" he recalls. "So I approached the problem laterally. You could call it a gimmick. I was able to get the Guinness Book of Records to recognize that this was the world's largest fax machine. On the strength of that, we generated around 600 articles over a period of six months. I got a local MP to stand up in the Canadian House of Commons to congratulate us and Fortune did an article in 1992."

WideCom got a lot of free coverage on the back of the Guinness story and the orders started to come in. Experienced entrepreneurs will recognize the new problems that arose from that.

"That coverage created a level of awareness that we could never have bought," says Suneet, who had taken on the job of marketing the product.

The wide format fax was a timely innovation, but by the mid 90s, when the company floated on NASDAQ its initial success had attracted heavy hitting competitors like Xerox and the Japanese Katsuragawa.

Suneet recognizes that he made his first big mistakes as an entrepreneur at this period.

"The fax was killed by the internet. I wish I had seen that coming a little faster than I did. After we took our first company public we had an opportunity to sell it for a large sum to Xerox, which we passed up believing we could do better alone."

But if he had done things differently, he says, he wouldn't have learned the lessons he did. And, it might not have been so good anyway: "I could have taken CAN$50 million as a 25 year old and said `I'm done!' who knows?"

As it was, he and his brother decided to address and explore broader markets and move out of the niche.

"In our second venture we went for portable peripherals. Our company DocuPort Inc made handheld scanners and battery operated handheld printers."

By 1999, the brothers were excited by the possibilities of the wireless internet. All their experience lay in imaging hardware, not in the internet, but they were not going to be daunted and move on to venture number three.

INTERNET ON THE MOVE

By 1999, Suneet found that the internet had become such a part of his daily life that he rarely bought a newspaper. "I hadn't talked to a travel agent in a few years by then!" he jokes. As a Sikh, he even found that he could find the appointed prayers online and save the complications of traveling with a prayerbook.

"The idea that I could have all of that in the palm of my hand was very powerful.

"I went through a lot of frustration for a few months because nothing delivered the internet effectively. The first product I bought was horrible! There was a special writing scheme to learn, and the average page would take three to five minutes to load."

He tried other products, each with the same result. That's when Suneet Singh thought back to the earlier venture.

"I knew 10 years earlier, on a 9600-band modem, we could send a 3ft x 4ft engineering drawing from one end of the world to the other in less than 30 seconds. The problem was not the pictures but the complexity of the page. We took out 17 US patents covering our client/server technology.

"The bottom line is that the Datawind technology delivers all the look and functionality of a PC web page 30 times faster than it takes to load it on any other handheld."

To make it stand out, though, Suneet realized that he had to find an attractive business model. He worked out that the volume of web traffic would be sufficient, and data costs low enough, to offer free internet access. And he looked back to the ruse he employed to get the fax product noticed - but, instead of the Guinness Book of Records, this time he offered the product free to anyone who could find a faster mobile internet device.

This caught the attention of geeks and bloggers the world over, but was a no-risk ploy because it really is faster. They loved it and spread the word.

WORLD SCALING

Having successfully launched PocketSurfer2 in the UK, Germany and Spain, as well as Canada and the USA, Suneet is now looking at opportunities in India and other developing economies.

He is convinced that the combination of fast and free access to the `real' internet will be a winner in these markets where the volume is so much greater, and the needs slightly different.

"The free access model is revolutionary in developing countries because most of the cost is in the screen and the wireless modem, both of which people already have if they have a TV and a mobile phone, we could drive the entry level cost down considerably."

It took India 100 years to get 30 million landlines; it took only five years to get 300 million mobile phones.

80 percent of families have one, he points out, but there are still fewer than 10 million internet-enabled computers in the whole country. "Just imagine how powerful it would be if the same number of Indian homes had internet."

Suneet's vision for India has a strong social dimension but sits better with the model being put forward by Sam Pitroda and the Knowledge Commission than with Nicholas Negroponte's OLPC (one laptop per child) project'.

"The product needs to be low cost, but it also should make commercial sense. People think I am mad when they see me talking to rickshaw wallahs and trying to figure out how to sell them devices at a price they can afford and in the way they want to use them! But the internet is too expensive for the average person in India.

"If we could bring the cost of access down to western levels, usage would increase massively. I want to bring the cost down to a week or two of salary, and make usage free for the average user."

Off and running in both India and China, Suneet Singh has also done a deal with a distributor in Nigeria, the richest and most populous of African nations.

Ironically, the one market where he hasn't yet been able to launch the free access model is the US.

As a serial entrepreneur, he is constantly on the lookout for new challenges and is currently very excited by the potential of low cost solar power to change lives in developing countries.

"Why is it difficult or expensive to build a solar panel fab in India?" he asks. "The cost of oil is creating such huge opportunities round the world. I truly believe that every 10 or 12 years we are going to see significant changes that make us wonder how we ever did without that!"

Suneet seems to be the very exemplar of a good entrepreneur, having in equal parts a reliable commercial instinct, the humility to learn from his mistakes, an almost boyish curiosity and a rooted world view that compels him to make life better for people.

 

[Courtesy: Exec Digital. First published in 2008]

March 25, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, U.S.A.), March 25, 2011, 12:50 PM.

I had the pleasant opportunity of meet S. Suneet Singh when he came to visit me at the Sikh Foundation, Palo Alto about 7-8 years ago. He is absolutely an amazing and humble person. He talked to me about the work he was doing in Chandigarh to support the kids of the innocent men murdered by the government authorities in Punjab in the 1980s. I was amazed to hear of his dedication to and passion for these kids, despite his busy travel and work schedule.

2: Kanwal Nain Singh (Lindsay, Ontario, Canada), March 27, 2011, 9:06 AM.

What a success story of a young entrepreneur! The article does not say much about Suneet's parents. Sardar Lakhbir Singh was a young engineer whose career started in India, and later worked in the building of modern Iraq during the 60's and 70's. He has been the brain behind the success story of his sons. His one daughter is a neurologist in Boston. Mrs. Lakhbir Singh, popularly known as Parveen, is an artist and a poetess of no mean order. Her writings are very touching indeed. She has had her paintings exhibted many times in Canada and the U.S.A. They are a remarkable family indeed.

3: Arun Trikha (Guelph, Ontario, Canada), October 07, 2011, 2:10 PM.

THe brothers duo is really marvelous with great parents. We are proud of your achievements.

4: Jaspal Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 08, 2011, 8:14 AM.

God bless such a kind and humble soul.

5: K.J. Singh (New Delhi, India), October 09, 2011, 7:23 AM.

They are so blessed: Being in the Guru Saroop inherently involves excelling! May Waheguru bless them more and more.

6: Ivan (Kiev, Ukraine), October 13, 2011, 2:47 AM.

I want to buy it. I want to distribute it in Ukraine.

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