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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Driving Ambition
How a Bangalore whizkid became a Silicon Valley posterboy. Up close and digital with Sabeer Bhatia, the man behind Hotmail

By STUART WHITMORE


Olivier Laude for Asiaweek

When he was only 28, Sabeer Bhatia got the call every Silicon Valley entrepreneur dreams of: Bill Gates wants to buy your company. Summoned to Microsoft's command bunker in Redmond, Washington state, he was deposited on the new acquisitions conveyor belt. Round and round the Microsoft campus he went. All 26 buildings. At every stop, Bhatia's guide helpfully pointed out the vastness of the Microsoft empire. The procession ground on until it reached Gates's office. Bhatia was ushered in. Bill liked his firm. He hoped they could work together. He wished him well. Bhatia was ushered out. "Next thing is we're taken into a conference room where there are 12 Microsoft negotiators," Bhatia recalls. "Very intimidating." Microsoft's determined dozen put an offer on the table: $160 million. Take it or leave it. Bhatia played it cool. "I'll get back to you," he said.

Eighteen months later Sabeer Bhatia has taken his place among San Francisco's ultra-rich. He recently purchased a $2-million apartment in rarified Pacific Heights. The place looks like a banker's lair, and Bhatia acknowledges that the oak paneling and crystal chandeliers might have to go. He hurries over to picture windows that run the length of the room and raises the blinds. Ten floors below, the city slopes away in all directions. The Golden Gate Bridge, and beyond it the Pacific, lie on the horizon. "This is me," he says. "I bought it for the view."

A place with a view for a man with a vision. A month after Bhatia walked away from the table, Microsoft ponied up $400 million for his startup. Today Hotmail, the ubiquitous Web-based e-mail service, boasts 50 million subscribers - one quarter of all Internet users. Bhatia is worth $200 million. He is already working on his followup: a "one-click" e-commerce venture called Arzoo! And Bhatia is looking homeward with an ambitious plan to wire India.

Bhatia was born and raised in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. His father, who held a high post at the Ministry of Defense, and mother Daman, a senior official at a state bank, placed great value on education. Their only son did not disappoint them. "On parent-teacher days they would just say 'Sir, why did you come? You don't have to come! We tell Sabeer to solve the questions on the blackboard for us,'" says Bhatia senior. Once Sabeer came home crying after an exam. He had not done badly; he just hadn't had time to write down everything he knew.

Like many Indian parents, Balev and Daman hoped their son would secure a lifetime position with a big multinational firm. Sabeer had different ideas. "I was pretty entrepreneurial even as a schoolboy," he says. When a college opened nearby, he decided to open a sandwich shop and drew up his first business plan. "Then my mom said 'Stop thinking about these things and go and study.' But that's the culture in India."

Maybe mother knew best. In 1988, Bhatia won a full scholarship to the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena. When his plane touched down that fall, 19-year-old Bhatia had $250 in his wallet and butterflies in his stomach. "I felt I had made a big mistake," he says. "I knew nobody, people looked different, it was hard for them to understand my accent and me to understand theirs. I felt pretty lonely." Ten years later you can still catch a glimpse of the innocent abroad. The Westcoast accent retains the sing-song cadence of his native Hindi. The CD collection features Bollywood soundtracks and dance

remixes of traditional Indian tunes. Yet Bhatia wears his American-style success easily, comfortable with his wealth yet unconsumed by it. His confidence and boyish modesty is an attractive blend that lends Bhatia serenity and presence, sending friends and associates into rapture.

People say when Bhatia enters a room he owns it. "I call him the Hindu Robot," says Naveen Singha, Bhatia's friend, mentor and proud owner of the third-ever Hotmail address. "He is persistent, focused, disciplined. He's a superior human being." Others say he glows with a beatific, otherworldly air. On our way to his office, Bhatia attempts a U-turn in his midnight-blue Porsche Boxster, stalling the slick little roadster across two lanes of traffic - and in the path of a garbage truck. "I'm not superhuman," Bhatia says. Rather, he has joined the ranks of the over-hyped Silicon Valley celebrities he idolized. Doing his masters of science at Stanford, Bhatia attended lectures by such legends as Steve Jobs of Apple and Scott McNealy and Vinod Khosla of Sun Microsystems. Listening to them speak, Bhatia "realized they were human. And if they could do it, I could do it too."

After Stanford, Bhatia found work as a hardware engineer at Apple. "I think my parents expected me to stay for 20 years," he says. Bhatia lasted nine months. In his cubicle, he read about young men starting up for peanuts and selling out for millions. Bhatia pondered what the Net could do for him, and what he could do for the Net. Then he had an idea.

It was called Javasoft - a way of using the Web to create a personal database where surfers could keep schedules, to-do lists, family photos and so on. Bhatia showed the plan to Jack Smith, an Apple colleague and they got started. One evening Smith called Bhatia with an intriguing notion.Why not add e-mail to Javasoft? It was a small leap with revolutionary consequences: access to e-mail from any computer, anywhere on the planet. This was that rare thing, an idea so simple, so obvious, it was hard to believe no one had thought of it before. Bhatia saw the potential and panicked that someone would steal the idea. He sat up all night writing the business plan. "Then we wrote down all variations of mail - Speedmail, Hypermail, Supermail." Hotmail made perfect sense: it included the letters "html" - the programming language used to write Web pages. A brand name was born.

Bhatia had $6,000 to his name. It was time to find investors. Drive through San Francisco today and every other billboard touts some Internet company or other. It was not always like that. "Four years ago it was a hard story to sell," says Bhatia. "Few people believed the Net was real. They thought it was a fad, like CB radio." By the time he reached the offices of venture capitalists Draper Fisher Jurvetson, 19 doors had slammed behind him. Steve Jurvetson and his colleagues quickly saw the potential and put up $300,000. Bhatia and Smith stretched the money all the way to launch day, July 4, 1996. By year-end they were greeting their millionth customer. When Microsoft came knocking, 12 months later, they'd signed up nearly 10 million users.

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