Redefining e-Commerce: Venky Harinararyan MS ’90 Leads the Way with @WalmartLabs
By Wileen Wong Kromhout
Venky Harinarayan’s career has been on an upward trajectory since 1996, when he and four other engineers co-founded a company that became a pioneer in comparison shopping on the Internet. in just two short years, Junglee Corp. was acquired by Amazon.com for $250 million.
Becoming a general manager at Amazon.com after the acquisition, Harinarayan began working closely with Jeff Bezos to create the company’s marketplace business. Today, marketplace is the company’s most profitable and fastest growing business, accounting for almost 30 percent of all U.S. transactions.
In 2000, adding to his already replete resume, Harinarayan became an angel investor. The web and technology entrepreneur created Cambrian Ventures with his business partner, Anand Rajaraman. The firm has been actively investing in the growth of early-stage technology companies for more than a decade.
“We invest in seed-stage companies,” remarked Harinarayan on the firm’s Web site. “We still love two entrepreneurs with a great idea. We invest in technologists, working with them even before they have their great ideas.”
So far, Cambrian Ventures has invested in companies like Aster Data (Teradata), Neoteris (Juniper Networks), Kaltix (Google), and Tranformic (Google). Harinarayan and Rajaraman were also among a handful of preferred angel investors in Facebook.
“When I look at start-ups, I first consider the team,” said Harinarayan. “The team has to have chemistry and has to be of high caliber. Coming together in a start-up is like getting married. Compromises have to be made and if there is high caliber leadership, the team will eventually be able to navigate their way through some potentially difficult times.”
Having a similar team of his own, Harinarayan and Rajaraman re-entered the start-up arena, this time with Kosmix. Based in Mountain View, California, Kosmix was created in 2005 with a vision of connecting people to information that makes a difference in their lives. Kosmix raised $55 million in funding from investors like Accel Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Time Warner Investments and Bezos Expeditions.
At Kosmix, Harinarayan’s team designed a platform that acts as a social media filter aggregating information by topic from Web sites, Twitter messages and other sources in real time to give users the information they wanted at any time. The various Kosmix sites drew approximately 17.5 million unique visitors just before being acquired earlier this year for a reported $300 million by Walmart, who saw Kosmix’s enormous potential.
Kosmix is now @WalmartLabs and will operate as part of Walmart’s Global eCommerce group. Increasingly, referrals to e-commerce sites are coming from social networks and @WalmartLabs was formed to create and develop new technologies and strategies to enhance the shopping experience of the company’s online sites and retail stores. Harinarayan serves as Senior Vice President Walmart Global eCommerce and head of @WalmartLabs.
“Clearly we want to grow @WalmartLabs to be much bigger than what Kosmix was,” said Harinarayan. “There’s an opportunity to redefine shopping at this point and we want to really understand how social networks and mobile platforms change what happens in shopping. So the charter of the lab is really to innovate technology, products, and business models around shopping and the social/mobile black box.”
Harinarayan and his business partner started Kosmix with the premise that the Web is like the library of Alexandria. They saw it as a warehouse for all human knowledge but the only window into this warehouse was the “search” function. Kosmix’s vision was to create programs that would access this web intelligence and mine it to create new applications.
“Fundamental to building such a Web intelligence platform is the need to structure the Web into categories,” said Harinarayan in a previous online interview. “These categories become the handles on which programs operate that humans can use in their day-to-day interactions. Much of this came from the search and domain experience we had cultivated during our tenure at Junglee and Amazon.”
Computer science was a fairly new field, and the Internet even newer, when Harinarayan decided to devote his studies to it at IIT Madras in India. He was born into a family of doctors and entrepreneurs in Bombay and grew up in Madras. Harinarayan’s family valued education, and also the Indian national pastime of cricket. He was the captain of his high school cricket team and also played tennis in college. According to Harinarayan, the rigorous education system of India, combined with his interest in sports, helped him to learn a great deal about people.
“As Plato said, ‘You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation,’” remarked Harinarayan.
Harinarayan moved to the United States in 1988 and studied for his master’s in computer science under the advisement of Professor Leonard Kleinrock at UCLA Engineering.
“I absolutely loved working with Professor Kleinrock. He was 100 percent supportive of my work and helped me a great deal,” remembered Harinarayan. “Under Professor Kleinrock’s direction, I focused on the area of networking, and the Internet is part of that, of course. I really enjoyed my time there and met some great people, like Ben Horowitz.” (Horowitz was profiled in the spring 2011 issue of UCLA Engineer.)
When asked what his secret to success is, Harinarayan said he doesn’t have one. At no time in his life did he imagine being where he is today and added that he is a terrible planner.
“If you want to be successful, you can’t think about being successful. If I start to think I’m successful, then I cease to be successful,” said Harinarayan. “You always want to be at a point where you feel you’ve got to figure it out, or you feel you need to solve something that would make people’s lives better. You’ve got to have a focus, a passion in life.”