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Kartik Ramakrishnan

“By age 30, the average Indian is married and has two kids. Let’s just say that I’m not married and I don’t have two kids. In some sense, that’s the price I’ve paid for where I am today.”

Age: 29
Company: QUIQ, Inc.
Position: Cofounder and Vice President of Business Development
Unofficial Title: Chief Janitorial Officer
Hometown: Hyderabad, India
Education: BS in Computer Science, The University of Texas at Austin; MS in Computer Science, Arizona State University; MBA, Stanford Graduate School of Business
Years in Silicon Valley: Nearly 5
Commute to Work: 15 minutes
Office Wear: Jeans and a T-shirt
Email messages in Inbox: 6,466
Unread Email messages in Inbox: 2,189
Email Received Each Day: about 100
Hours of Sleep a Night: about 6
Power Source: Coffee. Lots of coffee.
Cell Phone Bill: Between $300 and $400 a month. “I’m trying to cut down talk time because I was recently shocked by a monthly bill of a thousand bucks.”

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Kartik Ramakrishnan’s story is the stuff of sweat equity and passion. In 1987, the native of Hyderabad, India — now an international high-tech hotbed — moved to the United States at age 16. That August, he entered the University of Texas at Austin as a freshman. His brother, Raghu, who had finished his Ph.D., set off that fall for the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he began an assistant professorship and a permanent life in the States. For the younger Ramakrishnan, however, the unwavering plan was to return to his homeland. After studying and working in the United States, he wanted to launch his career in India. That was the decided path. Until he discovered Silicon Valley.

Unlike any place in the world, the Valley creates opportunities to realize individual potential, embrace blue-sky thinking, and expand the collective sense of possibility, according to Ramakrishnan. “In Silicon Valley, you’re exposed to many people who are living the dream of building an idea from the ground up and who are fueled by a passion to do meaningful work,” says Ramakrishnan, who moved to the Valley in September 1995. “Being here, you get the courage to dream it for yourself.”

Three years after moving to Silicon Valley, Ramakrishnan started his second year at Stanford Graduate School of Business and began navigating his way through the early stages of an Internet startup with his older brother. Today that company is QUIQ, a consultancy and database-technology provider for “powering intelligent community interactions” on the Web. Think structured information exchange. Think clients such as one-stop answer site Ask Jeeves. What started as a family operation out of Ramakrishnan’s bedroom has mushroomed in size to more than 30 staffers who work in San Mateo, California, and Madison, Wisconsin. (Raghu heads up the company’s technology core in Madison.) Ramakrishnan, now the VP of business development, expects the number of employees to double or triple by the end of this year.

In startup heartland, the 29-year-old Silicon Valley veteran says he has found work that resonates with his South Indian roots and values. “If you believe that information is the great equalizer, then I can’t think of a more noble job than making information available to the right people at the right time,” he says. “Information isn’t something possessed by a few people and released sporadically to the masses. Information is a distributed entity. Different pieces live in different minds, and the Internet provides a tremendous opportunity for aggregation, dissemination, and sharing. We’re building a platform to make information come alive. To me, there’s power and meaning and passion behind our idea.”

In the following Fast Company interview, Ramakrishnan offers his take on Silicon Valley life — its highs and lows, its unwavering speed, and its perspective:

How would you describe the speed of life in Silicon Valley?

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It’s fashionable for people to say that life is proceeding at breakneck speed. But I’m a firm believer that individuals control their speed. Exceptional performance doesn’t mean you have to work helter-skelter hours.

So, should speed demons slow down to wise up?

I’m big on sports analogies, so consider this: Joe Montana at the 1989 Super Bowl, 49ers vs. Bengals. The 49ers were trailing 16 to 13 with fewer than 2 minutes to go in the game. In the team huddle, Montana pointed to a celebrity in the stands. This probably was one of the most important games of his life, and he took the time do something completely out of whack. By doing so, he reduced the high-stakes tension, eased some wound-up nerves, and reminded the team to do what comes naturally to win the game. Montana was great at slowing things down, and he was even better at putting things in perspective.

Just because a Valley denizen is putting in a 20-hour day doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is doing the right thing, or playing the game faster. Ask yourself, “Can I work smarter as opposed to harder?” If you can, step back and think about why you’re doing what you’re doing, and you can manage life much better. I don’t think that life here is an unmanageable proposition. If and when QUIQ succeeds, it will be a testament to that work-life approach.

How many hours do you work each week?

I don’t want some VC to say, “Hey, lazy bones, I’m not going to fund your company.” But honestly, I work somewhere between 60 and 80 hours a week. These are not the hours of a typical Silicon Valley entrepreneur, but I work extremely hard every weekday. I don’t work Saturdays, and I try not to work Sundays. Saturdays are spent playing basketball with my business-school classmates. I spend three hours running up and down the court, and then take the rest of the day to recover. Soreness aside, I have a better work-life balance than most people do because I’ve made the conscious choice to limit my workload on the weekends.

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In this time of unprecedented wealth, should Silicon Valley entrepreneurs work to level the playing field?

A sense of entitlement has crept into our culture. People assume that they deserve, in some way, everything that comes to them. And there’s a bunch of twentysomethings who have grown up with this mentality as their formative experience.

Salaries are out of whack here. Do I really believe that founders of successful companies deserve every billion that comes their way? Yes. They did the work and therefore deserve the reward. But how does that transfer to the teacher who provided a formative influence in the entrepreneur’s life? Shouldn’t the instructor reap some of those rewards? When you consider this perspective, none of us deserve what we are making. Heck, I don’t deserve the salary that I’m earning — nor does anyone else in the Valley, if you look at it by that metric.

If you ignore immediate wealth creation, and if you look more holistically at the impact that the Internet has on the world — and will have on the world — you appreciate a new perspective. The information economy has the power to lift the world to a higher level. With that in mind, I don’t begrudge one cent anybody is making because, in the grand scheme of things, they are doing something that has phenomenal value.

What items would you include in a time capsule of Silicon Valley culture?

I laugh when I see certain young entrepreneurs strutting around the Valley. They are latching onto ridiculous fortunes and they don’t have any sense of self or true wealth. If I could package and preserve those people for posterity, that would be a genuine relic of the valley. At the same time, I’d gather the starving children in Bangladesh and place them in the capsule. That would be priceless.

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Do you plan to move back to India?

I consider myself lucky to have a balance between the values I grew up with in India and the opportunities I have in the Valley. I also feel like the most confused person. I love my Indian roots and I love living here, but I have trouble sometimes uniting the two.

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