The name Sabeer Bhatia needs no introduction. The veteran tech entrepreneur co-founded Hotmail, the world’s first free email service in 1996 with Jack Smith in Mountain View, California. Hotmail was essential to the way people communicated and interacted, as it symbolized “freedom” from ISP-based email and gave users the ability to access its fulfillment box. anywhere in the world.
It had over 10 million subscribers in the late 1990s, when the Internet population was close to 40 million. The startup was acquired by Microsoft in 1998 for over $500 million.
Since then, Sabeer, now 54, has been advising startups, investing in them and mentoring budding entrepreneurs, but last year, after nearly two decades, Sabeer announced the launch of its new platform – Showreela video recovery video platform that helps people suffering from upskilling and job opportunities.
While it contributed to the ubiquitous access to email with Hotmail, with ShowReel, Sabeer aims to tap into Internet consumers’ appetite for all things video and visual – for socially useful purposes like creating industrial relations and employment, especially as the pandemic has thrown billions of people into unemployment.
Why not web-based email?
Sabeer believes that any idea should aim to change the world. And that’s how he and Jack envisioned their webmail when they started Hotmail.
“As the web was really new in 1996, I had the idea of creating a web database, where we could store all kinds of information, records, etc. And while we were building that, our company Firepower had put a firewall around our corporate internet. That’s when it happened to us, what if we made email available to you on the web? That was the genesis of Hotmail,” reveals Sabeer.
Today, more than three billion people use email on the web. “It was the simplicity of the idea that helped create a revolution,” adds Sabeer.
According to Sabeer, they were just two kids who had an idea, so that meant they had to fundraise. “I went around the doors of venture capitalists asking for money. Many of them turned us down. In those days, business was usually given to more established people. However, Draper , Fisher and Jurvetson (an American venture capital firm) liked our story, our passion and our vision. The goal of entrepreneurship in the world of technology should never be to make money. The idea is to make a difference in the world. We got $300,000 to start Hotmail,” says Sabeer.
Today, as an “old person in the world of entrepreneurship”, he believes that founders must believe in the final vision, know where they want to be, and finally know this game play, then they can change the world.
The acquisition of Microsoft
At the time, Microsoft had a problem providing Internet for the then 2.9 million Microsoft Network (MSN) subscribers, and the base was hitting 5 million. That’s when they noticed Hotmail. “They called us to figure out how we were providing email to five million subscribers,” says Sabeer.
It was a business relationship that turned into an acquisition. “That’s the beauty of the valley, innovation really doesn’t come from the bigger giants but from the smaller ones who think outside the box,” adds Sabeer. After working at Microsoft for a year, Sabeer continued to make different investments and focused on startups.
For Sabeer, however, its technology journey began long before Hotmail or its acquisition by Microsoft. It had started during his school years. Originally from Bangalore, Sabeer’s mother worked in a central bank and his father, a former army officer, worked at the Gas Turbine Research Establishment in Bangalore.
Boy from Bangalore who loved math
“We grew up in the cantonment area of Cooke Town, St Thomas Road. I went to school at St Josephs and that schooling gave me a great foundation and education. But what differentiated me from others was that I always asked several questions, and this was especially true for mathematics. I was always looking for different, shorter ways to solve a problem,” Sabeer recalls.
According to him, this is something that is missing in Indian education today, as he believes that Indian education is based on heart and repetition and not so much on research.
“In retrospect, thinking about doing things different and differently is what helped create innovations and breakthroughs. I loved thinking about things, and the logic of math. I hated subjects that just needed me to learn hard. I didn’t need to remember anything for math, I could derive things from first principles, I had to use my mind, and things made logical sense. We had to think about the problem, it was not a memory game. math promotes independent thinking,” he adds.
While Sabeer’s mother wanted him to be a doctor, Sabeer was very sure that he didn’t like biology. He was always sure he wanted to be an engineer and that led him to join Bits Pilani.
He even ended up pursuing two degrees simultaneously – Physics and Electrical Engineering. “A few of my friends had been admitted to MIT, so I applied too, then to Caltech (California Institute for Technology) for a transfer. I didn’t understand with MIT and Caltech sent me the wrong application after my first year. They sent me a graduate application, not an undergraduate one!” sabeer laughs.
Sabeer Bhatia with Hilary Clinton
The phone call that changed everything
After a year, Caltech sent Sabeer an undergraduate transfer request form and the $40 application fee was waived. “In the ’90s, that’s a big deal,” adds Sabeer. But he still had to pass a test in physics, chemistry and mathematics.
A BITS Pilani professor supervised all three tests for Sabeer. “I realized then how hard the math was. I couldn’t complete the test and had assumed I was just going to pass!” exclaims Sabeer.
Meanwhile, he went to Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BADC), Mumbai, where one evening Sabeer got a phone call to his friend, saying that Sabeer got California. “I went to my friend’s house and called my dad who told me I got into Caltech with 72% assist,” says Sabeer.
It was the late 80s and 90s, that meant having RBI funds for the remaining 28%. However, the RBI had rejected their request due to rules and restrictions. It almost killed Sabeer’s chances of going to Caltech.
“My dad then wrote a letter to Caltech and explained the matter and asked for the aid to be increased from 72 to 75 per cent so that the rest could be funded by the RBI and other banks. Within 24 hours, Caltech increased the aid to 75%,” says Sabeer.
The tallest in the world
On his first day at Caltech, Sabeer finally realized how he made it through college even after a bad test.
“A teacher called Ricardo showed me my math test and said I was the only one in the world that got a 62 out of 100 and the next highest was 42,” Sabeer reveals.
It was at Caltech that Sabeer had the push to build and learn technology in different ways. He says the university has the best students and since the classes are small and intimate, and the professors are also humble, you can easily interact.
“There are classes with four students and a teacher. But it was incredibly difficult, because the teachers are on a different level. For example, I had taken a course in basic transistor theory. The first lesson the professor comes to and says – solid state electronics is the diffusion equation. I had no idea, then I realized that the last chapter of the book was about diffusion equations. They expect you to read everything before coming to class. There is no spoon feeding,” says Sabeer.
PhD in entrepreneurship
This, says Sabeer, formed the basis for continuing to study at Stanford. When he wanted to do a doctorate at Stanford, he had taken a course on business for electrical engineers, where he was told about startups.
“That was the inspiration for a startup. People like Vinod Khosla and Steve Jobs came to talk to us and told us how they started their business. And it inspired me as an entrepreneur instead of doing a PhD,” says Sabeer.
After his master’s degree in the early 90s, Sabeer went to work for Apple Computers, and while at Apple he was lucky enough to work for a startup called Firepower Systems. Sabeer worked at Firepower System until 1996. That’s when he teamed up with Jack Smith, who is an excellent programmer, and then made history with Hotmail.
“The great companies that exist today are because they are meant to exist. They fill a need. And these simple ideas are breakthroughs because they look at the fundamental problems in a different way. Entrepreneurship is finding the right problem to solve, it also changes the world, and then you succeed,” says Sabeer.
Quoting Google, Sabeer says, when the internet giant first started, it focused on solving the search problem better than everyone else. Today, they are worth nearly $2 trillion.
Solve a larger problem
Showreel, says Sabeer, is his way of approaching a problem differently. During the pandemic, he realized that videos were going to be a powerful medium for communication and content consumption.
“It got me thinking, can we make videos to help over a billion people find jobs,” adds Sabeer.
He says the point of Showreel is to help impact lives using technology. Simulation of offline human interactions in the virtual world, it aims to empower people to reach their full potential by democratizing free access to mentors like Sabeer Bhatia himself, and ultimately providing opportunities for employment and development to job seekers around the world in leading companies.
Tech Council, he says: “The idea is to look at it from different ways and angles. It’s not about using the latest technology or code, it’s about solving a problem and fundamentally changing the way people perceive a particular problem and issue.Entrepreneurship is about finding a solution and technology is about that, keep up to date with what is happening in the world around you.