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Subrah Iyar’s WebEx-ceptional Success

posted Oct 23, 2010, 1:22 AM by Diana Rohini LaVigne   [ updated Oct 23, 2010, 1:22 AM ]

Capturing the POWER of the Internet

By Diana Rohini LaVigne

Subrah Iyar, co-founder and CEO of Web conferencing powerhouse WebEx, overcame the technology bubble burst, the adjustment to the fluctuating American markets, and survived an IPO. Now, he is ready to reap the rewards of the WebEx world he has cultivated. Diana Rohini LaVigne sat down with this extranet expert to find out what fuels the man at the top of the 2,000-plus employee company with a 23 percent growth rate.

If you live anywhere in the Silicon Valley, it is impossible to miss the looming sign seen from one of California’s largest highways that reads WebEx. The sleek glass high-rise in Santa Clara, California, which houses WebEx’s world headquarters, sits next to other high profile companies like Intel, Sun and Yahoo!. The corner office is occupied by WebEx co-founder Subrah Iyar, who leads his team steadily toward growth.

A self-proclaimed unlikely big business CEO, Iyar doesn’t live by others’ rules. His booming jovial spirited personality combined with his hard-core drive, passion for people, and expert communication skills land him in a place few CEOs have experienced, by retaining the CEOposition after the company’s IPO in 2000. Fully expecting a typical post-IPO departure, Iyar promised his wife and children that his reigning days were soon to end and he would have more time to spend with the family. But by being such a talented leader, Iyar wasn’t able to deliver on his promise for years. Today, he is finally finding a balance to reconnect and share more time with his beloved family despite the challenges of the title of CEO.

Walking into his humbly decorated office, it seems almost devoid of the usual CEO status except that it is a top floor corner office of a modern glass building with a view from Santa Clara to San Francisco on a clear day.

When at work, Iyar’s booming personality and hearty laughter can’t be mistaken. He doesn’t make any effort to hide his jolly good fellow mannerisms. It’s easy to see that he loves the people he works with and it’s equally clear that they enjoy him as much. Today, he is sitting on top of the world, having experienced the success of his talent, but the struggles were real and still remind him of where he came from.

In the Beginning

Iyar’s family was close-knit, and he grew up in an area embedded in the film industry in Mumbai.

“I loved the stimulation and diversity of the area,” he tells Indian Life & Style in a free-wheeling interview. In fact, he had his brush with

Bollywood at an early age. Superstar Aamir Khan’s family lived in the same building in Pali Hill. Iyar recounts how he was just a few years younger than the dashing, budding young actor, but knew him and his parents in the early years. His disciplined father worked at a multinational company that helped shape some of his early thoughts about the world of business. He lived in a professional environment, so it made it easier for him to step into the role of CEO later on. His happy-go-lucky mother was a very easy-going and smart woman, and he learned much from growing up with three sisters. He harvested the return from the entire family by becoming a business leader with extraordinary communication skills.

Breaking away from his father’s career path working as a senior executive for the global leader Phillips, Iyar knew he wasn’t interested in finance, nor was he interested in attending medical school, so he took up engineering. Engineering would become his ticket to America.

Until this point, he was always fascinated by American music and films. Iyar gets nostalgic recalling his love of Pink Floyd and the music of the BeeGees. Today, he still enjoys the music of the ‘70s.

“There was something very appealing (about America), it was more open and more free,” he says.

After earning his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at India’s top engineering school, the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, Iyar realized the power of an engineering degree. He was the first in his family to come to America; he came in his mid-twenties to continue his schooling, receiving an M.S. in computer engineering from the University of Southwestern Louisiana.

Fortuitous Decision

Iyar’s decision proved to be fortuitous. Immediately after finishing his schooling in Louisiana, Iyar landed a job as an application engineer with Intel, which allowed him to work directly with customers. At the time, in the mid-1980s, Intel wasn’t the brand name it is today. It was a high risk employment. At that time, he had received job offers from both Intel and IBM. He still recalls how shocked his father was to find that his son had chosen the smaller company, Intel, over the powerful giant IBM. But again, Iyar’s intuition to select Intel proved to be right on the mark.

“I found at Intel, I excelled at working with people,” he notes. “I wasn’t a person for details. I liked concepts and communications. I evolved my customer centric skills.”

During his long tenure at Intel, until 1989, Iyar was given the opportunity to explore other career paths, including stints in product marketing and sales development. His work was always customer related and working with technical clients, which was something he loved and excelled at. He moved increasingly into a business role for companies like Intel, then Apple andTelelos Research, which later became Segasoft. He experienced so much success, until the collapse of the dot-com world in 1994. It was a rude awakening for the young dynamic communicator, but he didn’t shy away from seeing the potential of new technology.

Pivotal Point

The next pivotal point in Iyar’s career came in the form of a call from an ex-boss to join his new company, Quarter Deck. Iyar joined as the Internet General Manager. After running out of funding, Quarter Deck was acquired by Futurelabs, where the initial talks of WebEx came alive. His Futurelabs co-worker, Min Zhu, and Iyar hit it off right away. The two genius minds spent a lot of time together thinking about new products and technology. They built a strong relationship and began plotting their new venture.

Zhu and Iyar’s discussions led to developing ways to share documents over the internet and how to enable people to work company to company, not just intranet but internet. This led to the offer of an ‘on demand’ service for document exchange over the internet. The serviceexpanded to offer more features like online meetings.

“We wanted collaboration on the software but to offer it as an on demand service,” explains Iyar. “B2B commerce; not just offering technology but how to make technology work better with people. You need people,” he adds.

Iyar worked hard to build WebEx. But the market didn’t agree with his timing.

“I wanted to get out of the tunnel (of workload). I had a lot of positive energy and then when things were looking great, the market crashed. It put everything back to the struggle. It was real hard,” offers Iyar in retrospect. The market eventually stabilized and internet business prospects improved. Markets take their time to mature, as Iyar has learned over the years. “I need to learn to be more patient,” he shares.

Today, WebEx has employees working worldwide with offices in India and China. They enjoy a 64 percent market share and more than 3.5 million people use WebEx services every month. It’s no wonder WebEx is the world’s top web conference provider. But still its CEO remains humble about his success.

“I never saw myself as a big company CEO,” says Iyar modestly. “I thought I would find someone else to replace me at  Webex. It’s a process of building up a team and it takes time. It’s a culture and it is about keeping good people. It’s a lot longer process than I had originally thought. A lot of people at Webex have been here since the very beginning.”

Family Ties

Although he has been working steadily since he first arrived in the U.S., Iyar still makes frequent trips back home to Chennai where he parents have since relocated. The pressure to get married mounted with each visit. He refused any opportunity to see prospective brides for many years, but after turning 30, he opened the door to it, feeling more mentally prepared for the responsibilities of marriage.

“The first time I met my wife, it clicked. She was in the hotel and hospitality industries. She had more exposure to things. She was different,” gushes Iyar. It was an arranged marriage but they dated for over six months before finally marrying.

His Indian-born wife, Rupar, didn’t seem to mind the idea of relocating to the U.S. But after arriving, the adjustment proved to be tougher on her than she expected, yet she made her way through it.

“She is a woman of very high energy,” Iyar says with pride. “Whenever we’d have home parties, she put her full effort into it every time. Rupar is more high energy than I.”

He admits that it was extraordinarily hard on his family during the early years of WebEx, especially from 1999-2001. Iyar was so drained by the amount of work during the initial three-year span at WebEx, that when he came home, he had nothing more to give and to share with his family. Before the IPO, he promised his wife to just wait until the IPO was over, when he would work less. But the work didn’t lessen at all. It was three full long years of hardship on him and his entire family. But they were able to survive the stress by taking one day at a time.

Luckily, his wife was very independent and didn’t need much more than emotional support. Even though it was hard to give his full attention to her at times, she stuck by his side, and today the whole family can reap the rewards of his hard work. His family has grown through the years and the addition of his two daughters is one of the most treasured things in Iyar’s life. With 14-year-old Leena, who has a personality more like him and wants to be a lawyer, and12-year-old Nikhita, who is more like her mother, yet wants to be a corporate leader just like her father, Iyar isn’t wasting any time getting to know his daughters better now that his workflowhas leveled off. His children are only now starting to realize that their father is an important businessman with a great deal of responsibility.

The demands of his work have also become less stressful for him personally. In 2005, Iyar first had the opportunity and luxury to go on a ‘mental vacation’. Now, in 2006, his family has begun to travel together; they bought a beach house in Los Angeles and still have their second home in Saratoga, too. They’ve gone on a luxury cruise to Italy and Nice most recently.

On the weekends, Iyar is more relaxed, and attends temple as well. Although he used to be less religious, he makes it a point to go to temple every Saturday. This is something he does personally to keep himself in a calm emotional state. He sits in the temple and lets those feelings run through his veins. Does he miss India? “I miss the food and I miss the culture,” Iyar says. “It takes time to get used to (America). I have a lot of attachment to India.”

Iyar has hit incredible highs and overcome tough challenges, but today he stands strong with Rupar, Leena and Nikhita close by his side. Subrah Iyar is a man on a mission. He has a lot more to accomplish,but every day he counts his blessings too.