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Published on: May 16, 2024, 10:13 p.m.
How Binod Singh embraced failure and moved ahead
  • Singh: undeterred by setbacks: Photo: Sanjay Borade

By Daksesh Parikh. Executive Editor, Business India

“The value of a failed entrepreneur is seldom realised by others. Having travelled through the road unsuccessfully provides one with a premium certificate to be an advisor!”

One does not often hear about an entrepreneur talking about his own failures.

Binod Singh, founder and chairman of Cross Identity, a leader in Identity and Access Management (IAM) is not your archetypal entrepreneur. Unlike those who have a bright idea during college days and build up a start-up which subsequently becomes a unicorn, Binod Singh had to face a lot of challenges before he built a world-class company. Cross Identity has been in existence for over 2 decades and provides complex IAM implementation covering multiple technology platforms.

It was not a one-way street to success for Binod Singh. Before he became an entrepreneur, Singh took up multiple jobs and, early in his career, faced many challenges. The jobs spanned across companies in consulting, hardware, systems and software. Having completed his master’s in Industrial Management from IIT Kharagpur in 1978, Singh started at Tata Steel where he topped the graduate test, which all trainees had to then undertake. However, he was appalled by the sea of humanity which waded in and out of the Jamshedpur factory, when the siren blared, when the shift was over and a new one began. Singh did not relish the thought of becoming a cog amongst the 50,000-strong crowd. Consciously or unconsciously, Singh felt he had to do something innovative.

His first real job was with Forbes Forbes and Campbell as a consultant in the eastern part of India. His job entailed studying various businesses including power plants, manufacturing units, etc. Even then Singh tried to add value to the reports which he submitted, something which formed the bedrock of his jobs in later years. He reported directly to the regional manager.  

Computers had not yet made their public appearance in India. However, institutions like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research had developed the TIFR automatic calculator, and the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) had installed computers for complex computations. In fact, ISI is credited with developing a computer as early as 1953-54. Despite these advancements, the general public remained largely unaware of computers.

DCM and HCL emerged as pioneers in this field, initially focusing on hardware and later expanding into software. HCL actively sought Singh to join their team. “I refused three times,” Singh recalls, “and when they still persisted, I asked them when they would stop. They said, ‘Not until you join us!’” At that time, HCL had a small team, and Shiv Nadar personally conducted monthly reviews.

Singh acknowledges: “I learned a lot from Nadar.” He joined as the regional manager for East India and, on Nadar’s instruction, relocated to Bangalore (as it was then known) with the specific task of building HCL’s corporate image in the southern region. “Nadar had some good plans,” Singh reflects, “and I played the role of an executor.”

Personal computers had just come to India; it was a volume game and Singh played a good role in growing the volume of PCs. During his tenure at Wipro, from 1986-90, Singh was entrusted with the task of marketing PCs.  Singh built up channel partners across India to drive sales.  It was also the first time that PCs were sold through channel partners in India. Singh was regarded as the originator of channel partners for PCs in India. 

Just as the seeds of liberalisation were being sown in the country, Singh made the decision to join an MNC. With a proven track record in building channel partnerships, Singh ventured into Unisys in Europe. He embarked on extensive travels across Eastern and Western Europe as well as Africa to establish distributors and forge joint ventures for large computers in Geneva. During this time, India had yet to gain recognition for its software prowess and was not prominent on the global IT stage. The acknowledgment of India’s software capabilities came later, during the Y2K period.

  • I learned a lot from Nadar. Nadar had some good plans and I played the role of an executor

“I was too much of an Indian and despite moving across several countries I realised that my heart was still in India.” On his return to India Singh joined Digital Equipment as the vice-president for systems business. Digital was at that time known for making minicomputers for laboratories and research institutions. It was subsequently taken over by Compaq in one of the biggest deals of that time ($9.6 billion). Compaq was later taken over by HP for $25 billion. 

While Digital Equipment, also popularly known as DECK, specialised in mini-computers, Computer Associates focussed on large frame computers. Singh was the first CEO of Computer Associates India Private Limited. A subsidiary of the US company, the US technology service company marketed enterprise software to mainframe computers besides providing software support. 

Around 2000, Singh made the bold decision to leave everything behind and become an entrepreneur. He was determined not to follow the well-trodden path. “As a professional, you can only write a paragraph or a page in a book. I wanted to write a book, not just rewrite someone else’s,” he remarked.

Driven by a passion to create something original, Singh focused on the area of Identity and Access Management (IAM) solutions. He founded Ilantus in Texas, USA, with the aim of providing organisations with solutions to identify and regulate access, thereby safeguarding user identities.

Boot-strapped and problems

Ilantus started as a bootstrapped venture, initially with 12-15 professionals. However, shortly after its formation, the dot-com bubble burst, forcing Singh to tap into his personal savings. To bolster funds, he utilised his culinary skills, supplying breakfast and meals to Air Deccan, a low-cost, no-frills airline. “Those were tough days indeed,” recalls Singh, “but we were determined.”

Ilantus emerged as the first dedicated company in cybersecurity for access management. While IBM offered similar services, for them, it was just another offering. Drawing on his over 2 decades of experience, Ilantus honed its expertise in the IAM domain by providing applications to major brands, including 12 Fortune 500 companies.

From the outset, Singh was resolute in his vision that Ilantus would not be just another service company. He emphasised that while service companies typically focus on growth through volumes, he believed that creating a platform was the way forward. Ilantus continuously introduced innovations to enhance its services. In 2015, Gartner advised the company to venture into cloud services.

However, Singh misjudged the market and believed that the product would be better suited for larger corporations. In contrast, Okta, another company in the same space and listed on the Nasdaq, correctly anticipated that small companies would be the future. As a result, Okta is currently valued at $15 billion. 

Undeterred by the setback, Singh proceeded to develop a unique product called Compact Identity. This converged product allowed clients to access all services within a single product, eliminating the need to purchase different services separately. Currently, in addition to access management, the company offers identity governance and administration, along with cloud infrastructure and preliminary access management.

  • I was too much of an Indian and despite moving across several countries I realised that my heart was still in India

Subsequently, this product gained recognition from leading analysts globally and is listed in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant. Emphasising value addition rather than volume, Ilantus secured rates 4-5 times higher than typical service companies. Over the years, the company has expanded its presence to Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Australia, Singapore, Mumbai and Bengaluru. It maintains offices in India and the US, with India contributing slightly more to the market than the US.

With the rapid acceptance of Compact Identity, managing two businesses became increasingly challenging for Singh. Ilantus housed both the services and product business, including Compact Identity. To address this, the product was spun off into a separate company within Ilantus. In February 2023, the services business was divested to Network Intelligence, allowing Binod Singh to focus his full attention on developing the product. Despite the proliferation of competition over the years, Singh remains confident in his team’s talent and their ability to offer a differentiated product to stay ahead in the game.

The cybersecurity solutions industry is projected to reach $26 billion by 2026, and Singh has invested significant efforts to elevate his company, Cross Identity, to its current level. He aims to continue adding more value-added services to maintain the company’s enviable position. “What I could not do in 2000, I can do now,” he asserts. 

Beyond business, Binod Singh is an avid yoga practitioner, enjoys writing blogs, and is a proficient speaker. In India, as AI gains rapid acceptance, posing a threat to the Indian IT industry, it will be software products that propel the country to the next level of growth.

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