Bhushan Kulkarni doesn't just hold family meetings. The Saline-based entrepreneur chairs board
meetings with his family that focus on putting his clan's resources toward the best opportunities and makes sure every member, immediate and distant, stays on target with the business plans for their lives.
"My vision behind that is to get family together and openly talk about where they are in life, what they want to do, what's working, what's not working," says Kulkarni, head of his family and founder of a number of Ann Arbor-based start-ups, such as GDI Infotech and InfoReady. "Then we can become a more organized support structure for each other."
This entrepreneurial-centric view of life isn't new to the Kulkarni family. Kulkarni's father came from a remote village in India, became a doctor and built a private hospital in Mumbai. Kulkarni moved to the U.S. to study engineering in the early 1980s, took a job at Ford a few years after, and settled down in Ann Arbor. His roots are his wife, three boys, and a handful of start-ups.
Those start-ups include Quantom Consulting, an engineering consulting firm he grew to 1,800 employees strong before selling it. Next came InTouch, an international callback center that handled telecommunications in the Third World. That company was acquired as well. The IT Consulting firm GDI Infotech
followed, which started with a software focus but changed directions after the dotcom crash.
Kulkarni's most recent venture is InfoReady
, a software platform that helps streamlines the grant application process. It combines the best parts of search, social networking and administrative timelines so researchers can cut through the information overload and find the best grant opportunities. Government agencies, foundations and corporations generate nearly $1 trillion in grants across numerous sectors and finding the right one can be a difficult and time-consuming process.
Kulkarni has raised $1.1 million in seed capital for InfoReady, recruited Ted Dacko of HealthMedia
fame to help lead it, and landed 25 customers in his first six months.
"There has to be a better way to find that needle in the haystack," Kulkarni says. "Finding that needle in the haystack quickly and efficiently has become a big problem... Getting to that needle in the haystack is the secret sauce for InfoReady."
Kulkarni recently invited Concentrate's
Jon Zemke to his offices on the south side of Ann Arbor where they talked about start-ups, immigration, and mentorship.You have said you have made pretty much every mistake you can think of. Which one was so obvious that you can still not believe you made it?
My first two companies didn't have a strong board of advisors. It was me and my lieutenants working 24/7. Something as simple as that makes a big difference. I would have probably had much larger exits if I would have had a better board of advisers around me.Could you have avoided that mistake considering you were just starting out?
At that time I thought I knew too much. I was fearless and furious.Was there a mistake that came out of nowhere and blindsided you?
(pause) Not really getting the customers involved from the get go. People may tell you it's a great idea, but if they're not willing to put money on the table for it, then it's not a great idea.You once had 1,800 people working under you. Was your first hire the hardest, and if not which one after that was?
I never had a problem with the first few hires. The hardest part is when your first key employee
What makes that so tough? Is it replacing that person or the transition of replacing that person?
You assume that piece of the puzzle is intact, and you go on to filling other gaps. Then there's a gap you weren't planning on, and you're back to square one. I have struggled with that quite a bit.
You came to Ann Arbor as an intern and decided to stay. Name something that attracted you to Ann Arbor that the region could use to help keep more educated young people here today?
I'm a musician, so for arts and cultural aspects this is a place to be. There are also a lot of intellectuals that you can connect with. The quality of people is amazing. We also need to do a better job of mentoring. Mentoring is a huge piece. As a business community we need to do a better job of opening up our doors.Lots of smart people are saying that Michigan needs to attract more immigrants to reinvigorate its population and entrepreneurial class. What would make this a viable strategy?
We need to celebrate our diversity in a much more prominent way. The immigrant success stories need to be told more and more. Those are inspirational for the next generation. If I can do it, you can do it 100 times better because I came here with nothing.
How do you overcome fears from locals that foreigners are coming to steal our jobs?
This culture is really good at inviting people from other cultures. As far as I am concerned there is no discrimination here. I have seen it at other places. Instead of focusing on a few negative comments that happen in any community, we need to focus on positives. We need to celebrate our diversity and our successes so we all feel more blended.Can Southeast Michigan hope to compete with rapidly growing third world metro areas like Mumbai? If so, how?
The key is to focus on innovation. We have a lot of innovation right here. How do we turn those people onto an innovative path? Baby Boomers are retiring. How can we get those experienced people engaged with the younger generation? We need to create opportunities for them to work together.There is a big emphasis as of late on fostering a new generation of angel investors here, through pilot angel training programs at Ann Arbor SPARK and Michigan's new investment incentive legislation. Can angel investors be trained or are they something that needs to be grown organically from serial entrepreneurs?
They have to be trained. We have a lot of successful doctors and life-style business owners that don't know where to begin or where to get involved.You sit on several non-profit boards and have been quoted as saying that you want to give back to Michigan for all it's given you. How do you choose the organizations you support? What do you do to encourage others who are in your position to give back as well?
It's basically word of mouth. I don't have a strategy as much as it's someone approaches me and and says, 'Hey, we're trying to do this and you would be good in this area. Could you help us out?' One of the challenges is people don't know what opportunities are out there to get involved. We need to figure out how to do a better job of communicating with people as a non-profit community.If you could change one wrongheaded policy, idea or position that Michigan makes about business creation would what it be?
(pause) Break down all the silos. Mike Finney always preaches an open source economy development. We have too much localization, too many units of government, too many school districts, too many economic development agencies, too much overhead. Consolidate local units of government and schools districts, at least from an operations point of view. We need to look at a bigger region, not individual regions.
Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Concentrate and its sister publication Metromode. He is alsothe Managing Editor for SEMichiganStartup.com. He conducted and condensed this interview.His last feature was Venture Partners: A Q& A with Michael Godwin and Jason Townsend
All photos by Doug Coombe
Bhushan Kulkarni at the InfoReady offices in Ann Arbor