The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles different business leaders from around the world. This week we speak to Vik Verma, chief executive of US technology company 8×8.
It is hard to see Vik Verma’s bold tactic working today, given the US’s now much stricter stance on immigration.
Back in 1984 India, Vik was an ambitious 18-year-old from Kolkata (previously called Calcutta), who wanted to go to university in the US.
So applying to the Florida Institute of Technology to study electrical engineering, he went to the US consulate in Kolkata to try to get the required visa. And he was immediately rejected.
Instead of just accepting it, Vik decided to tell the immigration official that he had made the wrong decision.
“I stewed on it for a few hours, and then walked back and said to the same guy ‘you are making a mistake’,” says Vik, who is now 54. “I said ‘I don’t think you have given me a fair shot, this is why I want to go to the US, and this is why I think I can make a contribution’.
“Fortunately, the guy said he liked my spirit, and he then approved my visa on the spot. It was one of those moments in life that makes a difference. If I hadn’t got that visa my life would have been totally different.”
While Vik may of course still have been successful if he had been forced to stay in India, he has certainly achieved a great deal since he emigrated to the US all those years ago.
A self-made multimillionaire, for the past six years he has been the boss of Silicon Valley-based 8×8, which provides businesses and organisations with communications software that powers everything from video conferencing and automated text messages, to voice communication systems for call centres.
Although far from a household name, its customers include fast food giant McDonalds, serviced offices group Regus and the UK’s Ministry of Justice. With annual revenues of $297m (£238m) 8×8 is also listed on the New York Stock Exchange and has a market capitalisation of more than $2.4bn.
After graduating from Florida Institute of Technology in 1987 with a degree in electrical engineering, Vik then did a masters in the same subject at the University of Michigan before switching to Stanford University in California.
After finishing his education he helped launch a company called Savi Technology, which developed a system allowing the US Department of Defense to track all of its cargo containers around the world. The technology was soon also adopted by the UK and other Nato member states.
Vik went on to become chief executive of Savi for almost 10 years, before in 2006 he led the sale of the business to US defence giant Lockheed Martin for, in his own words, “in the neighbourhood of half a billion dollars”.
While Vik could have chosen to retire at that point, he decided to work for Lockheed for seven years before then leaving to take the helm at 8×8 in 2013. The company had been founded back in 1987 to make microchips.
It gets its unusual name from the fact that eight by eight pixels was a common video compression algorithm. “It is very geeky,” says Vik. “But the great thing about the name is that as it starts with a number we are always at the top of lists.”
Under Vik’s leadership 8×8 has gone on an expansion and acquisition drive in recent years, buying up numerous smaller rivals. And while it employed just 400 people back in 2013, it now has 1,500 employees at its California headquarters, and in offices in Australia, the UK and Romania.
Tech analyst George Sutton of Craig-Hallum Capital says that 8×8 “has been investing aggressively in its brand, an expanded channel programme, a larger direct sales force and its technology platform”. Fellow tech analyst Mike Latimore, of Northland Capital Markets, says that 8×8 “rates highly” in its sector.
Vik says that the business is continuing to add more than 300 employees a year and is still only “one third to one fourth” of the size it needs to be.
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Each and every worker gets shares in the business, from the receptionists up. Vik says that this is vital so that “everyone feels they are the owner of the company”.
All new recruits also have to give a speech in front of the board of the company and up to 70 other recent starters. They have to put forward an idea for the business, such as something that it should start doing, or something that it should be doing better.
For all US employees this takes place beside the pool at Vik’s mansion in the upmarket Los Altos Hills district of Silicon Valley. Google’s Sergey Brin lives three houses down.
“Requiring all new recruits to stand up and speak before the board and their colleagues sends out two messages,” says Vik. “One that your voice matters, and two that you are empowered to make any statement as long as it is logical, thoughtful and constructive.
“If the idea is brilliant or smart then we will actually incorporate it. But if it is a dunderhead, we will call you out, but we’ll never be cruel.”
The son of an Indian civil servant, Vik says he “takes pride” in what he has achieved in the US. “We are all born to do something. For me it is always about how you build companies.”