Crossloop co-founder Mrinal Desai shares his story of a long stint he spent being unemployed after the dot com bust earlier this decade, in hopes that it might help a few of the many high-quality technology professionals searching for work right now.
When Desai’s high-paying gig at Silicon Graphics (SGI) dried up, he was forced to move, work odd jobs (like stringing Christmas lights), take contract work, and set up a makeshift office at Starbucks. He ultimately dug his way out by doing some creative professional networking that led to learning opportunities and, eventually, job opportunities.
Listen to Mrinal’s story in this edition of the Tech Sanity Check podcast, or read the transcript below. As he mentions in the interview, you can find Mrinal on Twitter and Linkedin, as well as on his personal blog.
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Q: We’re going to talk about your experience being unemployed and some of the pretty useful stuff you got out of it during the big tech downturn in the early part of this decade. So let’s start with you explaining why you literally called yourself, “CEO, Vocationally Challenged, Inc.” after the dot com bust.
Desai: One big part of a phase like this, as one goes through it, is to maintain your sense of humor. So, to me, it was making the point that I want to enjoy my journey as much as the destination, if [I] get there. So using something that subtly attracted people in a conversation, or would be like “What does that mean?” I never shied at telling people that I was unemployed, but bring humor in allowed me to have a conversation with people.
And it was the best thing that happened to me. I’m personally very proud of it. Many people told to me, “Why are you always telling people that you’re unemployed. It’s not usually something people talk about.” For me it was one of the best things that happened to me, not only in hindsight but when I was going through it. You know, even in my Linkedin profile (where I used to work) I pretty much only described my experience in employment in-depth. Everything else was just where I was and for how long.
Q: When was it that you actually lost your job or became unemployed?
Desai: I came from India in ’99 in the boom time. I was fresh off the boat. I used to manage SGI, Silicon Graphics, the largest Asia-Pacific account in India. So I was pretty confident that if I come for business school, do my MBA, I was at least going to potentially get a job at SGI. I was in Monterrey [California] and the school was in Monterrey.
And, you know, man proposes God disposes, at that time. When I finished [business school] in 2001, not only was the economy totally tanking but SGI was also going down. So when I came out of school in 2001 there were no jobs. So I actually moved up to the Northwest to Portland, Oregon, where it was at least cheaper to live, compared to California. But it seems unemployment followed me because Oregon had the highest rate of unemployment at that time.
So I never actually got a chance to get a job. I did a lot of part-time stuff here and there, including stringing lights for Christmas in downtown Portland, which was a big win for me mentally because culturally I had not grown up to do that stuff and I had all my personal ego in my head, that “I have an MBA, I have an engineering degree from the best school in India, and I have worked for five years in one of the best companies in India, so why would I be stringing lights in downtown Portland.” So that was a huge win for me in terms of just overcoming myself mentally because I think a lot of people will relate to the psychological challenges one faces, especially in this phase of your life.”
Q: So you’re in Portland and going from job-to-job, what kind of stuff did you do that eventually moved you toward your next job, which was at Linkedin, right?
Desai: When I was looking for a job, one thing I was doing was networking off line, and I was actually spending a lot of my time at a local Starbucks, which was my “office.” And I would make sure that I didn’t sleep in or just hang out at home and be alone, so I would head out [in the morning] with my wife and go to Starbucks and sit there for four to five hours and read. So I started building relationships with a lot of other people who were regulars there.
And one of the other things that I did was I actually audited a class at Portland State University because I thought maybe a business professor could potentially introduce me to the business community in Portland because I was new to Portland. So I started building those relationships and actually the professor did introduce me to a marketing director at a flat panel display company called Planar, and he gave me some consulting gigs at Planar and [I] did some jobs there. Actually now he is the V.P. of marketing at E-Ink, which makes the display for the [Amazon] Kindle. So what I’m trying to bring out here is that it’s all about relationships, and maintaining them forever. It’s long term. It’s not for, “Can you get me a job? No? Okay, bye, bye.”
So I started networking and then I heard about Linkedin in 2003 and I said, “Wow, this might be a good compliment to what I’m doing offline.” And so I just started playing around with Linkedin and it actually worked for me. It didn’t get me a job through the contacts I made, but I met some amazing people through Linkedin. I’ve actually started blogging about it in my personal blog. I’m writing a series called, “I know what I did the last time I was unemployed.” And that’s all tips, because I want to share with people who are there potentially right now.
So I built these great relationships with people [back then] and I went to Linkedin in 2003 and Linkedin had about 40 thousand users at that time, and I said, “Look, I see the power in this tool and I want to work for you. And this is who I am offline, so this won’t be a [chore] for me.” Eventually, I went to work for them a year later in 2004, because when I [first] approached them they said, “We’re not hiring, we’re really small, but since you’re such an early user give us product feedback.” So one of the co-founders Konstantin Guericke suggested some product feedback.
I did that for about a year and built a long-term relationship with him and a year later, lo and behold, they raised another round of funding and they were interested in hiring someone for business development to launch their first revenue product. So I went in and joined Linkedin in ’04 as the first business development guy.
Q: What are some of the ways to start if somebody’s just been unemployed and they want to build the right relationships?
Desai: I think the first key thing is to do some internal introspection and [figure out] what is it that you’re really, really passionate about. So, one of the things that I’m driven by in relationship-building is the voracious need to learn. I’m really, really hungry for knowledge. And I’m a business guy so I’m always looking for tech people to interact with so that they can mentor me. Or I’m looking for a teenager who can teach me about consumer services such as cell phones [for exmaple] because I may not be using it the way they are.
So indentifying things that interest you at a genuine level is really important because then you can reach out to people who are experts in that field. Once you do that, the other thing is there are tons of social networks now that can help. I definitely don’t believe that they are a replacement [for real world networking]. They are more of an enhancement for what you’re doing offline, because genuine relationships – at least if you’re talking about building those for years and years – do need the body language and the interaction.
So [a social network], by no means, replaces good relationships, but it enables you to reach out to people, just the way I was using Linkedin to reach out to people when I was unemployed, but then I went and met those people and I still know all those people I reached out to, because I made it a point to maintain those relationships, independent of getting a job or not. So the focus was always on the journey and not the destination.
One quote that I really believe in, especially when you’re looking for a job is, “I am NOT a business man. I AM a business, man.” So you are a business by yourself. You are a product. You have to sell yourself. You have to make sure you promote yourself at the right places. Just the way you would go to buy a laptop at Best Buy as a channel, you have to figure out where are your channels to reach out to your target customer, who is potentially the hiring managers at the target companies. I have put a lot of these tips on my personal blog, which is mrinal.vox.com. I’ve basically broken it down about how individuals can proceed in the [best] way to go about job hunting.
Q: When you’re doing this, it also becomes an opportunity for you to eventually help out someone else, right?
Desai: Absolutely. You never know, when you’re building relationships you just do it because you’re aligned on the values. And you don’t do it because you want something from the other person or you think you’re going to oblige someone else. You genuinely do it because you believe in the person. Life is short. You want to surround yourself with really nice people. I’ll talk to a homeless person at a coffee shop, and hang out with him. If I can help him out and he needs some time to talk to someone then I’m happy to talk. I’m not going to lose anything, and he’s not going to give me anything, and I’m not looking for his title or his net worth or anything. And I think that’s where a lot of people lose out in real relationship-building.
Q: Why did you join a dot com company like Linkedin in the wake of what had just been the dot com implosion? Was there any reluctance there, and if you had been employed by someone like SGI the whole time do you think you would have still made the jump to Linkedin?
Desai: Yes, and primarily because I had reached the stage, or I probably did when I was employed that … I left India because I wanted choices. I became an engineer, not by choice, but because that was the way things were done if you wanted a job in India. And my brother became a doctor. That’s a very classic product road map for kids in India, overall. And I came to the U.S. because I wanted choices and I wanted to do what really excited me and Linkedin to me was who I was as a person. Their tagline is “Relationships matter.”
So, to me, it was a no-brainer, even if they had no funding. I had played around with the product, I saw the power, and I saw the way it would enable a lot of people to do much better in life. So even if I had been at SGI I think it would have been a no-brainer for me, assuming I had found it and played around with the product. So, to me, being deeply ingrained in social media and social networking, even today, is not because it’s the hottest thing that’s happening right now. It is allowing me to do what I love doing: finding really nice people and building relationships forever.
Q: So you did well at Linkedin and were there during much of the early growth, but then you decided to leave Linkedin in 2006. You’ve said your experience being unemployed before going to Linkedin is one of the things that helped you take the risk and start the new venture where you’re at now. So tell us about that.
Desai: When you want to start a business, the worst case scenario is that you’re not going to have a job, potentially. You’re going to fall on your face if it doesn’t take off. And then you’re unemployed again. I had lived that for almost three long years, so I knew the worst case scenario. I knew how to be happy and manage life sharing a cup of coffee with my wife on a Friday night. So I didn’t need a lot to see what I was happy and satisfied with. So that was a big part.
I think that’s one of the biggest fears I think people have if they want to start a company. [They think], “What if this doesn’t work?” I was very comfortable with “failure” because when I got out of school I never even got a chance to do much. That was a big part of the motivation to take the leap.
The other part is that I have learned from my personal experiences that adversity brings the best out of me. It brings things out of me that I didn’t even know I could do. Even when I was coming to the U.S. [from] back in India in 1995, which was my first attempt to come to the U.S., and my application for a student visa was rejected. And I couldn’t even apply for two more years, but I stood fast in terms of my dream and I said, “Okay, I’m going to do my best that I have India, build up some good experience and my resume, and try again. I’m not going to give up.”
So then I tried again in ’99 and made it. And then, of course, in 2001 the economy tanked and so again I had to fight. Doing a startup is similar. You’re in a chase and you have all these adversities you have to overcome. Somehow, it’s always the best thing – if you have the right attitude – to bring out things you didn’t know about yourself.
Q: I think one of the dynamics in life is crisis and victory, and sometimes you need a crisis to catapult you toward a victory. I think that’s part of the dynamic you’re talking about.
Desai: Yeah, it’s like you never want to let a crisis go to waste. It’s such an important time if you really want to grow.