Ahead of the Curve

Entrepreneur Krish Ramakrishnan has made a career of being in the right place at the right time.

On a Thursday night in March 2020, while waiting for a flight in a Chicago airport, BlueJeans co-founder Krish Ramakrishnan ’83M, ’19HN got an urgent call from one of his company’s biggest customers, Facebook. With cases of COVID-19 cropping up globally and cities mulling stay-at-home orders, the social media giant was going to shut down its global offices and have its employees work remotely—and lean heavily on BlueJeans’ video conferencing platform. “You’re going to be the mission-critical connection for us,” they told Ramakrishnan. “Are you ready?”

Facebook was the first domino. The next day, another Fortune 500 company called with the same message. Soon after, a large, top-ranked public research university in the Midwest called to let him know that they would be transitioning to remote learning. Over the next four days, traffic on BlueJeans’ networks shot up by 250%.

While the pandemic’s instant demand spike was impossible to predict, Ramakrishnan had been seeing the trend lines lead here for decades. With increasingly globalized workforces, companies would need a better way to connect with employees working remotely and expand their talent pool—and video, he believed, would be the communication medium that could make that happen.

Ramakrishnan’s ability to identify these kinds of movements in their nascent stages is a big part of what has made him a successful serial entrepreneur, having built and sold two tech companies before BlueJeans. “If you want to start a company, you need to look at technology and project it two to three years out,” he says. “You want to create a company that solves tomorrow’s problem, not today’s problem.”

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Ramakrishnan attributes his prescience to an outsider’s perspective borne of his immigrant experience. Raised in a small village in Southern India, he moved to New York City in 1971 when his father, a diplomat, was stationed at the Indian Consulate. After his first-ever train and plane rides, he arrived in his new home, which “might as well have been on Mars.”

The contrast was striking: Items that would have found ample reuse in his village—everything from yesterday’s newspapers to outdated-but-working TVs—lay discarded on the streets of his new neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens. The supermarkets floored him, filled with unimaginable amounts and varieties of foods. “You know how immigrants will say that when they come to America, the streets are filled with gold?” says Ramakrishnan. “It really felt like that.”

He would return to India in 1974 for his undergraduate studies in physics when his father was reposted back to New Delhi, but his mother, brother, and sister stayed in the United States. After his father died suddenly, his family convinced him to return to the States, and in 1981, he moved in with his sister in New Jersey.

When somebody says, ‘This is the way it needs to be done,’ that just rubs me the wrong way,” he says. “I’m always asking, ‘Why should it be like that?’

Once he was settled in, his sister began to offer counsel. His experience working in construction in India was not going to help him here—and the same went for his physics degree. “Nobody’s going to recognize any of that,” she told him. “You need to start new.”

Long interested in engineering, Ramakrishnan enrolled in summer math classes at what was then Monmouth College. When he arrived for the first class, though, a sign on the door announced that it had been canceled. Peeking into the room next door, he noticed some math on the blackboard and took a seat, figuring there might have been a mix-up. There wasn’t: The instructor informed him at the break that it was actually an advanced IBM mainframe programming class. “Huh, computers,” his sister said as she drove him home that evening. “I think I heard something good about computers being important in the future. So maybe you should do that.”

The next day, she drove him back to Monmouth, and he discussed the possibility of enrolling in a master’s program with Gilfred B. Swartz, who at the time was chair of what was then the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. Naturally, Swartz asked him about his prior experience. “I have never even seen a computer,” Ramakrishnan told him. Swartz made him a deal: If Ramakrishnan aced the three programming courses offered that summer, he would write him a recommendation. Ramakrishnan spent long hours in the Monmouth computer lab that summer, finding his way through the work. He aced the courses and was admitted.

The education at Monmouth had a practical grounding. Many of his instructors came from nearby Bell Labs, which is where Ramakrishnan began his career after earning his master’s. But he was soon lured west by the promise of Silicon Valley. One day in 1987, he packed his bags—sight unseen, with no job—and moved to California. And while he had never seen himself as an entrepreneur, he found himself wondering about the clunkiness of some of the early internet infrastructure he was seeing as he started his career in the Valley. This is archaic stuff, he thought. We’re never going to see the full promise of the internet without better tech.

His outsider’s perspective, he says, helps him recognize opportunity. “When somebody says, ‘This is the way it needs to be done,’ that just rubs me the wrong way,” he says. “I’m always asking, ‘Why should it be like that?’”

So Ramakrishnan decided to build something better. In 1993, he launched Internet Junction, an early e-commerce solution, with two friends. He spent his days in tech consulting and his nights helping to write code for the start-up. (He was nominated by his two cofounders to serve as the company’s president—a role he believes he was given because he was the slowest coder.)

Self-funded and lacking any name recognition, the startup still managed to get the attention of Silicon Valley tech giant Cisco Systems, which eventually offered to buy the company. The final negotiations were a remarkable scene. Ramakrishnan was called in to meet with John Chambers, Cisco’s legendary CEO, who told him he wanted to buy the company on the condition that Ramakrishnan work there for four years afterward. There would be a contract, Chambers said, but what guarantee could the founder really give him that he would stick around? “You’re right,” Ramakrishnan told him. “No contract is going to force anybody to stay if they don’t want to stay.” He extended his hand. All he had was his word: “I don’t need a contract. You just need to trust me.” Chambers took his hand, and the deal was done.

After five years at Cisco, Ramakrishnan tried retirement for three months. It didn’t take. “Staying at home, learning golf—it wasn’t working,” he says. In 2001, he became CEO of Topspin Communications, whose tech helped string clusters of servers together. Or at least, that was the company’s eventual offering.

When Ramakrishnan arrived, Topspin was in disarray. The market for its main product had collapsed, he soon realized, and he had no ready fix. “So we either had to return our investors’ money,” which was about $14 million of the $15 million it had raised, “or we had to find something different to do.” He divided the company into three teams, each tasked with devising a new idea in 30 days. “All of the ideas were bad,” he says with a laugh, “but one idea was slightly better than everything else.” The new tech found a market, took off, and—once again—caught the attention of Cisco. In 2005, they acquired Topspin for $250 million.

After another stint at Cisco, he spent a few years at Silicon Valley venture firm Norwest Venture Partners, where he met his BlueJeans cofounder, Alagu Periyannan. Ramakrishnan had a vague interest in doing something in the video space; Periyannan had relevant experience, including working at Apple on the company’s QuickTime video application. They hit it off over an initial coffee and spent the next several months developing what would become BlueJeans—a simpler, more user-friendly videoconferencing system. (The name BlueJeans is meant to connote its strength and ease of use. Ramakrishnan came up with it while driving to a pitch meeting with venture capitalists, listening to Neil Diamond’s “Forever in Blue Jeans.”)

Again, it would be Ramakrishnan’s job to run the company. He attributes his fit in this role to “a disability of mine.” “I can’t dive that deep into a subject, but I can see the forest from the trees. I can see the pattern,” he says. “My cofounder, Alagu, is a very rigorous engineering talent—very bright, very articulate. I could only paint a picture, but he had the wherewithal to construct it.”

Periyannan says those pictures are important, of course. “My ideas were very broad and focused on how to solve a problem,” he says. “And Krish had a really nice way of taking that and creating a story out of it.”

Periyannan also heralds his cofounder’s steadiness: “With any sort of entrepreneurial journey, it’s got many ups and downs. Lots of these can actually pull apart a founding team. That never happened with us—we’ve always had that trust, but also a fair amount of empathy for each other.”

Navigating the downs can be emotionally taxing, though. Periyannan offers an example from a few years ago, when BlueJeans’ growth stalled a bit and the pair decided it was best to bring on an outside CEO and have Ramakrishnan move into an executive chairman role. “That was not easy,” says Periyannan. Humility can be a rare trait in Silicon Valley, but it’s another reason why Ramakrishnan has thrived, he says. “One of the things that Krish has taught me is that when you start a company, it’s about the investors, the shareholders, the employees, the customers—you know, all of the stakeholders. It’s not just about the two founders and what we wanted.” It’s about doing the right thing, he says, even if it’s the hard thing.

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In mid-April 2020, BlueJeans announced that it was being acquired by Verizon. In the midst of an unprecedented surge that tested its mettle, the company was now also in the process of managing its sale, with the cofounders ping-ponging between war room calls to address the booming traffic and huddles about the upcoming acquisition.

The move offered the company an instant influx of cash and the stability of a Fortune 500 company in Verizon, says Ramakrishnan. And as he did when he sold his previous companies to Cisco, he has stayed on to help with the transition. “I need to feel that this acquisition has been successful for Verizon,” he says.

But there won’t be a victory lap. “My success has really been about being fortunate and being lucky more so than being smart,” he says. Turning a canceled class into a master’s degree at Monmouth, chasing a dream in Silicon Valley, hoping a handshake would make a viable replacement for a contract— these are all moments where Ramakrishnan could easily have failed. And while some might naturally attribute Ramakrishnan’s success to perseverance, honesty, integrity, gumption, or guile, he prefers to attribute it to simple good fortune.