Suresh creates Netflix- and Spotify-like Experiences for Customers in only 7 Days
What’s your story?
I help enterprises understand customer preferences to serve them better. What’s interesting is that my career has been a steady backward progression.
I’ve moved further away from customers, to understand them better. I started in sales, moved several steps back into product management, advertising, and then media.
Then moved to a regional Asia-Pacific job, before I became an entrepreneur in 2000 with RedPill Analytics, understanding customers by only looking at data about them. I sold my company to IBM in 2009.
In 2012, I set up Crayon Data, where our maya.ai platform uses AI-led algorithms to handle big data sets to understand customer tastes. A take-away from my business experience is to stay true to your core, but always reinvent yourself for the future.
What excites you most about your industry?
I work in AI and big data. Simplifying decision-making, based on data, is an exciting and challenging space in which to work.
Everyone says data is the new oil, though few understand that we are only at the threshold of this revolution. Too much data leads to confusion and contradiction. And people turn to algorithms to make sense of it all. A vivid example is a difference in Covid19 death and infection rates globally, with the same data used to justify multiple sometimes erroneous analyses.
Human minds cannot process huge amounts of data. This is why we need great algorithms (think Google and search Spotify and music) to help simplify and make sense of our lives.
What’s your connection to Asia?
I am Indian by birth, Singaporean by residency, and a Hong Konger by marriage. I spent 34 years growing up in India, and 23 years as an entrepreneur in Singapore.
My upbringing is Western: Language, education, and business decisions being bounded by rational thought processes. But my sensibilities are completely Asian: Mind-set, orientation to family and community, all are decisions driven by holistic thinking versus analytical thinking.
Asia is the cradle of the greatest civilizations known to mankind, and the next few decades will be ours to shape.
Favorite city in Asia for business and why?
Hong Kong. Without a doubt. The moment you step off the aircraft into the terminal, you feel the buzz. The energy is totally different from any other city in the world. It is Asia’s best city, where you encounter a variety of life in all its glory. I hope that its recent troubles go away.
As an aside: There was nothing more thrilling than the way airplanes used to take the final sharp bend to land at Kai Tak airport into the heart of the vibrant city! I miss that.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
One of the best in recent times was from a mentor who advised me: “When trying to lead people, don’t provide answers. Instead, lead with questions. The question will enslave them. And they will eventually find a very similar answer to what you wanted to give them. But they will be more committed because it will be their answer, not yours.”
Who inspires you?
There are so many heroes in life. Some of the usual suspects: Gandhi, Mandela, the Dalai Lama.
For most of my life, my #1 hero has been Muhammad Ali. To be #1 in the world at something and then to give it up, for your principles, is not something many of us would do.
Right now, it is Bruce Lee. His quote, “Be Water, Become Water,” is the best explanation of Darwin’s theory of adaptability that I can think of. #StayRelevant, in other words. By the way, that phrase is now part of my email signature.
What have you just learned recently that blew you away?
Humans are truly destroying the world: more than 40% of insects are declining and a third are endangered. Nature will fight back, in unexpected ways. Covid19 has helped heal the planet rapidly: air pollution has dropped by 70% in many countries. People are discovering blue skies!
Our business and political leaders repeatedly show they are capable of going really low. But humanity always goes high – in showing our inherent generosity, and universal support for justice, whether they be migrant workers in India or African Americans in the US.
If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Life is lived forward and analyzed backward. There is little to regret the choices I’ve made. They determined the journey and the person I am today. At a young 57, I will have fewer tomorrows than yesterdays. But I want to focus on my dreams, not my memories.
All said, if there is one thing I would have liked to have done, I would have liked to spend some time working in the US, in NYC, or in Silicon Valley. Their scale is just different. I think I would have learned more if I had spent time there.
How do you unwind?
I enjoy music, books, and cricket. Music gets me into a mood that touches me in ways I cannot imagine. Books transport me to different worlds. I read widely, though not as much as I’d like to. Cricket releases my energy and fulfills my need to compete and win, fairly and sportingly.
Favorite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
There are so many. But if you force me, Kyoto, Bali, and Tangalle, in Sri Lanka. All idyllic places with calming energy. There is something unique about Tangalle – sitting on the beach, looking out at the sea, and then realizing there is nothing between you and Antarctica. It’s humbling.
Everyone in business should read this book:
For Entrepreneurs: “The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers,” by Ben Horowitz.
For Business folk: “Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value,” by Bill George, former Chairman, and CEO, Medtronic
For Everyone: “The Gene: An Intimate History,” by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Shameless plug for your business:
If you want to create Spotify- and Netflix-like personalized experiences for your customers, but struggle with AI and data-related challenges, talk to Crayon about how our maya.ai platform will let you do that for millions of customers in just 7 days.
This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connects’ series of more than 1000 interviews
Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built, and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder and CEO of MBH Corporation PLC. He is the author of three best-selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’, ‘Agglomerate’, and ‘Entrepreneurial Investing’.