At the 40th anniversary celebrations, The Idea of Infosys, NR Narayana Murthy and Sudha Murthy go down memory lane.
The Infosys journey began on a wing, a prayer and a sum of $250 in 1981. An idea that began with seven young engineers from humble origins in a one-bedroom apartment in Mumbai.
Today, it has a market capitalisation of around $80 billion, revenue of above $16 billion, and an employee base of over 3.35 lakh. It is also one of India’s most respected companies, as it created a whole new paradigm when it came to corporate governance and democratizing wealth creation.
To mark four decades of this journey, Chandra R Srikanth spoke with the iconic founder of Infosys, NR Narayana Murthy, and his wife Sudha Murty, who not only bootstrapped Infosys with $250 but is also a hugely successful author and a dedicated philanthropist.
Over the course of the interview, they spoke about their journey, their struggles, their children and their life goals. Edited excerpts:
Infosys began on a wing, a prayer and a sum of $250 (Rs 10,000 at the time) in 1981, and we are now commemorating four decades of this company. Now it has a market cap of close to $80 billion, revenues of over $16 billion, and 3.35 lakh employee globally. When you all started up, did you ever imagine, it would become this huge, iconic, revered corporation that it is today?
NR Narayana Murthy: I must express my deep gratitude to every one of the Infoscions and ex-Infoscion, who have played such an important role in transforming that fuzzy picture of 1981 into this beautiful, masterful art of 2022.
Right from the first day the seven of us sat down in my one-bedroom apartment in Mumbai, after a three-hour-long discussion, we came to the unanimous conclusion that respect from our stakeholders would be our number one target. Respect from customers, respect from employees, respect from investors, respect from the government of the land, respect from vendor partners, and respect from society. So, therefore, I have never bothered about numbers like market cap.
Murty, you in a sense are India’s most successful angel investor. And I say this because the $250 (Rs 10,000 at the time) you parted with in 1981, has given outsized returns. But when you gave that money to Mr. Murthy, were you worried? What was going through your mind because this was his second venture? In the mid-1970s, he founded Softronics, but it failed.
Sudha Murty: Well, my mother told me when I was married, you know, you should always keep some money. And this money should be used only in emergencies. I used to keep some money every month from Murthy. When Murthy described the importance of the software revolution, I thought, “Here is the young man, he has dreams. Whether it will happen, fulfill or not, I do not know.”
But I knew he was a hardworking person and he wants to do something, that this is an emergency. And if I don’t give, he will regret it for the rest of his life. Regret is worse than failure. It doesn’t matter if he fails, he can accept it and take up a job, but regretting is worse. So, I gave only Rs 10,000.
NR Narayana Murthy: What happened was, we were a group of seven people. Four of us had our part of the equity, which was really very small. But three of my colleagues did not even have that small amount of money. So, I hit upon my well-practiced idea of dipping into the pocket of my wife and convinced her to give the entire Rs 10,000 because I didn’t want any distinction between individual A and individual B. All these people returned the money in a matter of six to nine months. So, it got stuck that she was the angel investor.
These days, we hear accounts of students starting up in college hostels, but you started up at the age of 35. You were married by then and a parent. Did that inhibit your risk-taking abilities in any way as an entrepreneur? What was your safety net?
NR Narayana Murthy: Well, my wife was my safety net. She was much more qualified than me. Second, I have grown up in a house of eight children, with my father working mostly as a teacher. So, we were not unduly worried about hardship. Third, my mother instilled in us a sense of independence. The fact that my family had raised me with an independent mindset, and that we were quite used to a certain level of hardship, gave me the confidence to go through that.
And how did having her by your side help, because the entrepreneurial journey can get lonely at the top? So how did having Mrs Murty by your side help you during those tough times, the lonely times?
NR Narayana Murthy: As you know, a leader is very lonely. He or she will latch on to anybody that supports him or her. All my colleagues were abroad, doing project management, design, programming, and all of that.
And I was alone in India with NS Raghavan. And I had to obtain the licence, arrange for a computer loan, change the location, and lease the premises. These were not easy in the 1980s. And whenever I had a problem, I always turned to my wife. Even in 1995, when I decided to respectfully decline a contract renewal with a Fortune 10 company, I realised that I would have to travel 250 to 300 days in a year. The first person that I called after I took that decision and before I informed everybody, I called her and said, “Look, will you be able to handle the children? Because for the next three years, I am going to be working like there is no tomorrow.”
Therefore, it is true that she has been a great supporter of the dream of Infosys and my dream.
Sudha Murty: I realized a person like Murthy, who eats, breathes, and drinks Infosys, will not have time for any other thing. Second thing, in the olden days, sages used to go to the forest and do tapas. Today, the modern tapas is that you have to work 24/7 for your company, then there is a possibility that it may do well.
I had the family support of my parents and my sister.
You were not bitter about it?
Sudha Murty: Not at all even to this day. Never. That is not my nature.
Mr Murthy, it took you and the other founders a really long time to see any visible sign of economic progress. It took you all over a decade to come close to owning the good things in life. What kept you all going?
NR Narayana Murthy: I came from a lower-middle-class family. Therefore, hardship, penury, and suffering – were not big issues that bothered us. We had learned to enjoy the small things in life.
And therefore, for us, I’m sure it’s the same for my colleagues too, when we walked into the office, when we saw small victories, it gladdened our hearts and that made us say, “I will run this marathon the next mile.” I think that’s the reason why we were never worried about any long-term gratification.
However, I must tell you that there was an offer for a couple of million dollars and all my colleagues, they agreed to sell it in some way. However, at the end of that discussion, I said, “No, I don’t want to sell because I have gotten used to it. I have lived an austere life. I don’t need too much money. And I see the light at the end of the tunnel. And therefore, I’m quite willing to buy from you people.” And Nandan was the first person who came on to my side, and then one by one the other people came. And that’s when I said, “Look, from now onwards, we have to be very positive. We should not be tempted by these small baits.”
Boils down to conviction in a sense, your decision to not sell but continue to…
NR Narayana Murthy: Just to give you an idea. Compare that with what it means the $2 million in 1990 and now $84 billion, what you’re talking about is one rupee that we would have got would be 42,000 rupees today. I’m very grateful to my younger colleagues for having full faith in me, and for having agreed to continue on this journey. And they have benefited. Everybody has benefited.
Mr. Murthy, you know, you have often described Infosys as your middle child, and it’s a child you’ve actually devoted the most time and attention to. You know, there would be legendary stories about how you would come into campus at 7:00 a.m.
NR Narayana Murthy: 6:20 a.m
What impact did this have on your family, your marriage, and your children? Or is that something an entrepreneur must do?
NR Narayana Murthy: I think entrepreneurship is about daring. It’s about courage. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about deferred gratification.
So, if you want to create something that doesn’t exist, it requires a lot of hard work, it requires a lot of commitment, it requires a lot of sacrifices. And as I pointed out earlier, when you see small victories on the path to great glory, those small victories give you energy, enthusiasm, confidence, happiness, etc. But the real losers in some senses are our children, both Akshata and Rohan. The reality is that I couldn’t spend any time with them. Sudha took care of them entirely. All of their credentials, accomplishments, PhDs, and Stanford education are all thanks to her.
Were you and the children okay with it that, you know, Infosys is the middle child and it’s the child that needs the most attention?
Sudha Murty: I used to tell the children, “Appa is busy. Appa is building Infosys. And it requires time. So don’t worry.”
And whenever Murthy has time, he spent it entirely with the children. So, the children were aware, and we worked in such a way that they would not get bored. The children were aware of what their father does and why he is not able to give so much time.
NR Narayana Murthy: On rare occasions when I came home on time and the children had completed their homework, we would take them to Mac Fast (in Bengaluru). And they would have their pizzas, French fries or whatever they wanted. And then Rohan would make sure that he got his new He-Man toy. And if we didn’t get him that, he would lie down on the road at the junction of Church Street and Brigade Road, saying, “No, unless you get me, I won’t get up.”
So only Rohan was the insistent one. Akshata was okay with…
NR Narayana Murthy: Akshata was very gentle by nature. Rohan now is full of empathy, all of that. He’s a completely transformed person. Very serious, very scholarly and all of that. But at that time, he was the naughty one.
And who is the stricter parent between the two of you?
NR Narayana Murthy: Always the mother. The disciplinarian in every house is the mother, right? It’s the father who spends very little time with children, he feels guilty. And therefore, he tries to indulge them and get them whatever they want. That’s reality.
Sudha Murty: I’m not a strict mother in a way. Because, you know, children say what they want. Then I would explain to them why they should not do that. And I had a lot of other hobbies that helped me not feel lonely, like writing and teaching at a college.
What made Infosys stand out was also its decision to democratise wealth creation. Now we talk about ESOPs, but Infosys instituted ESOPs way back in the 1990s. And by some estimates, you’ve given away 1.3 lakh crore to employees. There used to be stories about how the peons of Infosys, have become millionaires. But how tough was it for all the founders to give up so much of their equity?
NR Narayana Murthy: No, I think by nature I have always been a very generous person. My younger colleagues were very, very nice people. They followed whatever I suggested. They agreed to whatever I suggested. But as far as I was concerned, giving was never an issue because I grew up as a lower middle-class person and my mother was a very, very generous lady. That’s what she taught us right from our childhood.
The only negative I have, the only sad thing I have is that has not been repeated in India.
There are so many software companies, it has never ever happened. I thought our example would be followed in a bigger way by so many of these smarter entrepreneurs, so many of these big houses, all of that, but no. It’s not happened.
The man you married, was he very different from the person we know as NR Narayana Murthy? What has changed and not changed about him?
Sudha Murty: When I met him, he was a young man with no responsibility and extremely idealistic. Compared to that, he is very serious, and less talkative compared to what he was in 1974. I have known him for 48 years.
NR Narayana Murthy: Married for 44, known each other for 48 years.
Sudha Murty: So, what I knew was a young different person, but what I know now is a different person, but we have many things in common. His love for helping people, knowledge, and love for reading has not changed. But with time, people do change. He has become much more serious. That’s what I feel.
Why are you serious, sir?
Sudha Murty: Because he has been in Infosys for such a long time, all the time thinking about Infosys.
NR Narayana Murthy: Well, I think when I’m with my children, grandchildren, they bring a lot of joy to us. We go to movies…
Sudha Murty: When?
NR Narayana Murthy: Only because of COVID we have not been. We enjoy life to the extent it is possible. But definitely because of the enormous responsibility that I had on my shoulders, you know, for so long, I have become somewhat serious. Also, in some way, looking at the environment around us.
People often talk about couple goals. What were your couple goals from a professional and a personal lens?
Sudha Murty: We never had those kinds of couple goals. We always cared for the family, children, grandchildren, our work and take our work seriously, and passionately. For example, I work much more than before. And Murthy never objects to that because he respects my passion, writing, or travel. I respected his work when he was working. We respect, and we give space to each other. That is very important. We advise each other, but we do not interfere with each other. And allow each one’s passion to excel. That is probably the best way to be in marriage, I suppose than owning a person.
NR Narayana Murthy: She has never looked into any of my mail. I have never looked into any of her mail. We have followed it right since 1978. And in terms of, if not couple goal, the common goal has always been the bringing up of our children with competence and values.
We’re talking about four decades of Infosys. But how would you like Infosys to be remembered for the next few decades? How can it continue to be an enduring corporation?
NR Narayana Murthy: Well, you know, I like it to be a place where people of different nationalities, races, religious beliefs, regions, and economic backgrounds come together and work as a team with courtesy, dignity, and competition in an environment of intense competition to add greater and greater value to our customers and other stakeholders day after day after day.
What that also means is that there should not be any governance deficits.
Many people want to retire at 40, 45, and 50, but you all continue to work at the same pace. What keeps you going?
Sudha Murty: Blessed are those people who have continuous work.
What are your plans for 2023? Do you have travel plans, vacation plans, any big goals that you’ll want to achieve?
Sudha Murty: I always accept the way God gives me and enjoy that situation. And I always believe that you should excel in whatever situation you are in.
NR Narayana Murthy: Well, obviously, meeting our grandchildren sometime next year is one thing that I look forward to.
You will be going to 10 Downing Street…? (Their daughter Akshata is married to UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak)
Sudha Murty: We would love to see the children.
N.R. Narayana Murthy: Or they could come here, whatever it is.
Sudha Murty: Easier for us if they come to India.
NR Narayana Murthy: Second, we might go out of Bangalore with a close friend and spend a few days in Mysore and Kabini. MoneyControl