Q&A with MJ Ramachandran: On Entrepreneurship, Empathy, and Expediting Innovation

05.02.22 | MJ Ramachandran | Blog Post

MJ Ramachandran is a Principal at Forgepoint. Learn more about his background here.

MJ, tell us about your unique background: where did you grow up and what has been your journey to get to where you are now?

I was born in India and for the most part, grew up in Chennai. My dad was a first-time entrepreneur and had a company with offices in Europe. As a result, when I was a kid, I also shuttled back and forth between London, Paris, Amsterdam and India, which I consider home. These were formative experiences for me – primarily because of entrepreneurship.

My dad grew up in a village of about twenty thousand people and moved to the big city – Chennai. In his mid-twenties, he chose to leave his safe job with a guaranteed pension and start his own company. It caused a scandal at home from what I’ve heard. But with the support of my grandfather and other investors, he started an import-export business that focused on cutting through several layers of middlemen and leverage the privatization wave that started in the late 80s / early 90s in India to pass incremental value to customers. My mom too started, sold, started another, and wound down her own companies as well. A woman founding a company, much less multiple companies while, straddling life as a working mother when there were no mitigating circumstances compelling her to do so? Another scandal.

While they weren’t technologists and didn’t run technology companies, my family exposed me to the ups and downs of entrepreneurship early. They also put me in the most enviable position to explain, as a little kid to his friends, how even though my parents didn’t “have jobs” they were still productive earning members of society. They were earning and employing as contributing members of society – building companies and hiring people, thus supporting families and communities.

All this led to an early affinity for entrepreneurship, which manifested itself as a guidepost for many decisions later. I started a company to pay my way through college and help stabilize family finances after my dad passed, I actively recruited into a middle market investment bank over bulge bracket banks because of their focus on working with venture backed teams or bootstrapped founders, I chose to go to a newly public company that helped change the face of consumer credit in the US over large established companies because of a strong founder, and of course I became a VC.

Unlike most VCs, you bring a range of experience as a founder, an investment banker, and an operator. How does this influence your perspective as an investor?

It was a journey getting here. Mostly purposeful, thanks to mentors and advisors – and because I was lucky. Having been a founder, banker for emerging startups, and an operator helping manage the largest product line at public company has enabled me to build several skillsets that are useful as an early-stage investor as it relates to company building.

But the most important thing, however, is that I can empathize with entrepreneurs more than most as I’ve likely gone through something similar during my own career. I’m not claiming to have all the answers but rather I have a broader aperture of perspective to help problem solve alongside our CEOs and mgmt. teams – be it with operational issues, recruiting, fund raising, or eventual exits.

Here at Forgepoint you’ve been covering cybersecurity convergence categories, including cloud infrastructure software, DevOps and developer productivity, AI/ML, and fintech. Why do these areas appeal to you? What do you look for in your investments?

We now live, interact, and transact in a flatter, more remote, increasingly digital, and cloud-native world. The mandate for cybersecurity therefore is not only to permeate deeper but also expand broader. Availability, reliability, agility, scalability, portability, latency, customer experience all ought to be cybersecurity concerns. Hence, I see a lot of room for strategic value creation by investing at the convergence of the broad areas I cover because this can be a force multiplier for positive business outcomes. And we can de-risk the portfolio at the same time because our companies operate at the nexus of two (or more) large market segments.

For me, there are only two types of companies in the world – ones that help you make money and ones that help you save money. If a company can’t articulate their ROI in one or both ways, then they’re just a technology (however cool that technology is) chasing a solution. That fundamental ROI is what I look for in my investments. I’m also more excited by companies who can attach their ROI to topline because they’re stickier – even in the leanest of times, customers will spend money to make money. And from my own experience – when organizations stack-rank their solutions, it’s more difficult to replace / deprioritize one that helps generate revenue vs. one that saves money.

What key gaps do you currently see in the market for more innovation, startup to enterprise?

Infrastructure, development, and security teams have more to manage today than ever before. When success means rapid and secure build and deployment of complex applications in distributed cloud environments, businesses need solutions that are not only agile but are also able to abstract and automate non-core activities.

I believe that there’s a lot of value to be created by companies that can give more to customers without having them do more. As I mentioned, this manifests in a couple important ways – automation and abstraction. Automation accelerates repetitive tasks that one would otherwise do by themselves. Abstraction removes the dependence on other parties to be able to do one’s own task.

The companies I’m involved with – Anitian, Cloudentity, DeepSee, Rafay, Verituity, and TruEra – all have one or both as underpinning themes.

Ultimately, it all comes down to delighting customers by helping them increase the velocity at which they can roll out their products without compromising on security.

What do you find most gratifying about what you do?

I think it takes a special sort of gumption to be an entrepreneur – to be able to leave the safety of a job and go all in to build for success as well as effect real change through great ideas and excellent execution. Being part of and helping out in several of those journeys is extremely self-actualizing for me.

If you weren’t an investor, what would you be doing?

Much like everyone does, I’ve thought of several plan Bs over the years. Most notable among them are craft beer bar owner, scuba diving instructor / guide somewhere in the South Pacific, and pitching to be the host for a travel show called “Dives, Dives, and Catches” that showcases dive sites across the world (with a bent towards ocean conservation) along with local drink and food.

I guess, if I were to choose another vocation, I’d go for that last one to have it all!

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