I’ve talked in previous posts about the importance of thinking big when starting your business but visualising what big looks like from day one, envisaging your dream and developing a strategy to get there, is key to achieving the growth required to turn your start-up into a billion-dollar company. In my experience businesses that grow from small businesses into global corporations excel in four main areas: Culture, Innovation, People and Ambition. I’m going to use my time at Virtusa to demonstrate why these characteristics are important, and how, when brought together, they shape the future success of any business.
Founded in 1995, our strategy at Virtusa was to provide technology services to US companies to accelerate innovation at an affordable level of investment. During our first 5 years we successfully built products for many Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) and software companies, but as the company grew, we wanted to attract corporate clients, so capital was required to build a bigger enterprise team. In 2000 after a $13.5m Series A investment from Sigma Partners, we won our first enterprise client, Bank One. Citigroup and Bank of America followed, along with expansion to the UK and Europe. From 2005 we added BT, P&O, Deutsche Bank and AIG to our client list, with IPO (NASDAQ: VRTU) following in 2007. Having weathered the 2008 banking crisis, Virtusa grew from strength to strength expanding into various industries and markets and following the acquisition of Polaris in 2016, became one of the largest Technology Services companies in the world. 2020 saw revenue in excess of US$1.3 billion and net income at US$43 million. Virtusa was acquired for US$2 billion in February 2021 by Baring Private Equity Asia.
As employee number one with Virtusa, I was in a unique position to participate in the building of a strong, creative and open culture that put the customer first. This was extremely important to the founders, who while ensuring the financial metrics were sound, encouraged creativity amongst staff, to increase the variety and breadth of the services we offered. The organisation had a flat structure, engendering the values of a true meritocracy where endeavour and ideas were recognised and rewarded, building strong relationships between leaders and staff. The strong culture at Virtusa provided the foundation for growth needed to achieve the dreams of the founders.
Or as I call it, the ‘Innovative Mindset’, the ability to apply cutting edge technology to everyday business problems. Kris Canekeratne, one of the founders, was an ambassador for bringing new technological capability to large enterprises, making this a key selling point for Virtusa, and critical to the rapid growth of the business. As Sanjeev Palihawadana, a former Vice President at Virtusa remembers “What stood out for me was the ability to consistently stay ahead of industry and tech trends. We were always talking about where the puck would be 2 to 3 years ahead and almost all the bets placed turned out to be spot on.”
We were an ideas factory, specialising in re-platforming, providing integration that could be used at scale, across multiple businesses. ‘Productication’ was a framework we invented to educate enterprises to replace duplicate systems with a single platform.
Investing in great people, training them, recognising their worth and making the success of the business their success, made a huge contribution to realising the dreams of the Virtusa founders. With only a small pool of skilled engineers in Sri Lanka at the time, I remember running weekend bootcamps, training between 30 and 40 graduate recruits from the local universities in object-oriented coding, then from Monday – Friday reverting to coding for the customers. That culture of training and support evolved and became endemic throughout every part of the business from sales to people management, to finance. With the focus always on expansion, hiring top talent was crucial, as was training and engagement to keep your best people within the organisation.
Sustaining the ambition to grow your business can be a challenge after early successes. But if you had that dream from day 1 and developed your strategy accordingly, ambition will keep you going. With Culture, Innovation and People providing the basis of your success, keep a close eye on your financial indicators, using every metric available to you, mapping these onto your 3–5 year scale up plan to gauge progress. At Virtusa the Board had a vision with an ambitious plan, no corners were cut, and a program to re-invest profits paid off. Dammika Ganegama, a former Director says, “At Virtusa we were encouraged to think big and look at different business models, financial models and partnerships that would make all parties succeed.” Clayton Locke concurs, “As Managing Director for Virtusa UK, a key objective was expansion into EMEA. We opened our first office in Amsterdam and invested in a few key hires but success in the new geography was not a given.The decision to invest in regional expansion is one of ambition, confidence, timing and market analysis. Our timing was right, and the EMEA business proved to be an engine for growth and diversification within Virtusa.” This was great for staff who worked with high profile corporate clients, launching new services and businesses in a variety of sectors including financial and telecoms. Fulfilling that ambition through large but calculated risks with a series of funding rounds and mergers and acquisitions, and never giving up in the face of adversity, Virtusa grew to the US$2 billion business that was bought in February 2021.
Virtusa succeeded by focussing on:
And never letting go of the dream. It was my privilege to be a part of this fast-growing organisation and to learn from their inspirational leaders.
About the Author
Ashok Suppiah is co-founder and CEO of the Mitra Innovation Group, a global technology provider specialising in digital transformation, product incubation and integration services. He has been a leading light in the tech industry for over 20 years. A serial entrepreneur, Ashok has started more than 10 technology companies in the USA and UK, notably as a member of Virtusa Corp which sold for US$2Billion in 2021 and as Chief Architect for eDocs which sold to Oracle for US$115Million in 2004.