All startups want to make it big, but few live to see that dream come true, and fewer make it to the Clutch rankings of the top 20 software companies in India. Amongst the elite few is Siam Computing – the Chennai-based global product development studio celebrating 11 years of existence this month.
The founder and CEO of Siam Computing (and also ProdWrks), Khuzema Siam, has simple but layered success mantras that have paved the way for his company to become a force to be reckoned with in the product development space. He says, “To learn is to do. Life is short, and the best time to implement your idea was yesterday, and the second best time to do it is today.”
In an exclusive interview, Khuze shares his greatest learnings from starting up and leading Siam Computing as one of the most favored destinations for founders for all their product development needs.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length)
Congratulations on Siam Computing turning 11. What would you like to say today, looking back at the path you’ve taken?
Thank you. I think, even before I started Siam 11 years back, fresh out of college and after quitting my IT job to take up a few freelancing projects, I believed that ‘NOW’ is always a good time to start. I say this because, in reality, nothing is truly over until it is done.
That’s very well said. What made you quit your job with such conviction?
I wanted to add more value to people’s lives using technology as an enabler, and I started Siam with exactly that vision. I did everything and housed all departments by myself. And after a year, we had the developers, HR, and finance teams come in.
Any initial fears when you started Siam Computing?
I was young and naive when I started out… the bliss of ignorance (smiling). I thought it would be an interesting thing to have on my resume, even if it didn’t work out. But yeah, even later in life, you can always move on from your failures and do something better.
Amazing! Tell us more about how Siam Computing started and how it’s going.
Siam Computing started as one person’s dream in 2012. Now, there are 150+ dreams attached to it, if not more. It’s been very rewarding to see our people have kids and buy their first car and house while working at Siam.
Great to see you so invested in your team. Can you share one important lesson from your experience of building an exceptional team?
When building a team, especially when something goes wrong, it’s very important to ask, “If everyone did their best, then where did we go wrong?” You must always trust that everyone on your team has done their best, and there is never an effort problem when something doesn’t go how you want it to.
You see trust as a strong foundation for great relationships…
Yeah, that’s another thing I learned along the way – the invaluable importance of building relationships. A lot of times, we make transactional choices and think about what’s useful. That’s not something we should do with relationships, both personal and professional. You have to do your best for every relationship and put in the effort to build relationships.
Anything you wish you had known earlier when you started?
You know, I wish someone had told me earlier to really dream big. Just trust the scale of your dreams even if you can’t see the path ahead. Believe in your dreams, and don’t just keep wishing for things to happen.
Wonderful. Tell us about a lesson you value immensely.
When you stop learning, you’ll stop growing. I live by this principle, and that’s the kind of culture we have at Siam Computing. And you know, this isn’t just limited to the intellectual aspects. You must be able to look at everyday life experiences that force you to grow.
Speaking of growth, what is your opinion on the rapid changes in the tech industry?
You know, that’s where opportunity and threat come together for us. With rapid changes in the tech industry, founders will need to find new ways to give back to society. The threat comes from the effort and energy required to keep pace with these drastic changes.
When we started in 2012, the mobile revolution had just started to pick up the pace, with less than a billion people owning a mobile phone. But today, with over 5.5 billion mobile phone users globally, all products and startups are mobile-dependent! And, in this decade, we’re looking at the starting point of the era of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.
So the tech industry is constantly and rapidly evolving and at Siam, we’ve always been committed to learning, unlearning, and relearning, lest we risk becoming stagnant.
Were you always comfortable with change?
I’d say that it felt more natural to me when I started out. I was young and open to experimenting. When you mature and become process-oriented, then it becomes difficult to implement new things.
That’s true. So, how do you balance being a techie and an entrepreneur?
I’m a techie on a conceptual level, but as a founder and not as a developer. We have our central engineering team that keeps us relevant by learning things and then moving them downstream. Again, I am grateful for my team, to whom ownership of responsibility can be trusted. But yeah, the engineer-developer has died in me, and I am proud of that.
Any tips for founders starting out today?
You know, in the startup world, much like in life, you only fail when you give up. Develop a sense of resilience – the most successful founders I know today are the ones who didn’t quit. This is a lonely and rewarding journey. It’s literally your baby, right? Celebrate your great times, but don’t get too addicted to success or failure.
What does failure mean to you?
Failure that is reviewed is very useful. Conscious failing has to happen for you to learn and grow. Take lessons from your mistakes and failures, but don’t live with the problem. Then you end up internalizing defeat, saying, “India meh aise hi hota hai” (This always happens in India). Move on with a lesson, even if it is slow. Get 1% better in a month and another 1% in the next.
Can you share an instance of a particularly dark time in your journey and how you overcame it?
Yes, in 2017, all our projects and finances went haywire. There seemed no way out of it, and we didn’t know where the money would come from in the future. At that moment, I realized that things should not continue the same way and that drastic changes were needed. Those changes needed to begin with me. Only if I feel better will everything else change, and that’s when they really did.
Cut to 2020, you can read all about how we opened a new office when the world was still fighting the pandemic.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve gotten from a mistake?
It is very important not to take yourself too seriously. You should be able to laugh things off rather than sit and crib about things that didn’t go your way because you won’t even remember it in years to come. Humans make mistakes. Just move on with a lesson.
What’s something you wish you could undo from your journey?
I wish I had not spent many years without focusing on one thing. There was a time when I wanted to do a lot of things, and hence I launched Hisabing and Startups Club. You should be able to say no, take one thing, and double up on what you are doing.
Tell us something about Hisabing.
Hisabing is an easy-to-use cloud invoicing platform for SMEs that I launched in 2014. Without Hisabing, we would have remained engineers and developers solving problems vs. founders finding out problems.
Can you tell us a little more about finding problems?
Yes. So, there are three types of founders. The ones who just think in terms of solutions and features they need to build, others who see and articulate problems in terms of today, and finally, we have great founders like Steve Jobs, or those of Zoho and Zerodha, who were subtle in identifying inefficiencies and problems that users didn’t even know existed for them.
You see, life before Swiggy was a reality to us – having to go to a restaurant to pick up food. And then came Swiggy identifying this inefficient process and making it better! And that’s what we’ve been doing at Siam too. It is a way of life for us to identify problems and inefficiencies that users haven’t yet realized they have and prioritize developing a product rather than just completing a project.
If you had a magic wand, what would you change in the tech industry?
I’d like Indian developers to lose the image of just being ‘pixel pushers’ or ‘code pushers. It’s an amazing time to be building products in India as she transforms from a service nation to a product nation. There are so many unicorn startups with a global mark.
You’ve come a long way from starting Siam as just a resume enhancement gig, to now having this sheer confidence…
You know that poem by Zakir Khan, Main shunya par savar hoon? I started at shunya (zero), and had nothing to lose, but definitely, a lot to gain.
“Main shunya par savaar hoon
Beadab sa main khumar hoon
Ab mushkilon se kya daru
Main khud hi kahar hazaar hoon”
That’s wisdom and philosophy at its best, now to fantasy. What would you be doing if you weren’t running Siam?
I wish someone would pay me to travel the world. I’d build a restaurant. Siam has given me the medium to meet and connect with so many people, so a restaurant feels like the most natural setting to do so.