In the wee hours of the morning, Nagesh Challa's life often unfolds like some turbocharged remake of the movie Lost in Translation. Like Bill Murray's character, Bob, who blows off steam in Tokyo's karaoke underworld, Challa decompresses after long days in Japanese boardrooms by mounting bar stages and belting out standards like "Hey Jude," as well as enka — love songs in Japanese — that he doesn't quite know the words to. As the shirt-and-tie-clad engineer croons, "Don't ca-a-a-rry the world upon your shoulders," locals clap and whistle — and Challa's colleagues in the Japanese mobile-phone industry watch in amazement. "It scares the heck out of me," Challa admits. "I'm not a very public person. But it's okay, because you don't have to hit all the notes perfectly."
This derring-do has served Challa's daytime alter ego well. After dawn, the unlikely karaoke king can usually be found in one of two places: in the idea lab of Ecrio, his Cupertino, California, company, dreaming up next-gen cell-phone features, or in technophilic Japan, forging multimillion-dollar agreements to license those features to such mobile heavyweights as NTT DoCoMo,
Five steps ahead works fine for Challa. Ecrio is profitable, with the bulk of its revenues coming from Japan. It recently wrapped up a $24 million investment round led by CSK, JAIC, Nomura Securities, Aplix, NTT DoCoMo, and
Challa's been a tinkerer since his childhood in southern India. "My parents and sister would duck for cover whenever I said I would repair something," he says. "To them, that meant destroy." He moved to the United States to pursue a PhD in physics at Purdue University, but abandoned his studies for a job designing chips at National Semiconductor. Then he started a company, NexCom Technology, developing gadgets that were light-years ahead of their time; for instance, in the early 1990s, he invented the Media Stick, a 2-megabyte storage device for PCs and mobile phones. "People didn't quite know what to do with so much storage," Challa says. He again found himself too far ahead of the curve when he started Ecrio in 1998. Working late at night in each other's living rooms, Challa and cofounder Rao Gobburu had developed a device called SmartPad that let users scrawl handwritten notes and transmit them to phone and PDA displays — a platform they envisioned expanding to images, videos, and other data. But when they pitched the multimedia package to mobile operators in 2002, "the feedback we got was, 'This is too much,'" Challa says. "We got carried away by the technology. The operators were looking for something simpler."
By 2004, the mobile landscape had changed — but Ecrio's passion for sophisticated technology hadn't. Much-hyped 3G cell-phone networks, which allow high-volume data transmission, were becoming common in Japan, making mobile providers there more receptive to the bandwidth-heavy apps Challa and his team were developing. One of those applications, Push-to-Talk — a voice-based instant-messaging system — produced a coup for Ecrio: NTT DoCoMo opted to include the system on all of its phones, which are made by companies including NEC and Panasonic.
Push-to-Talk proved a huge moneymaker, but that wasn't all. It also inspired Ecrio to create a broader platform called Push-to-X, which the company envisions as the future of multimedia messaging. Larry Loper, Ecrio's VP of marketing, grabs his cell phone off the table to demonstrate the possibilities. "Let's say I'm running late, and I can't reach Nagesh, so I open up this little app on my phone." He speaks into the mic, "Hey, Nagesh, it's Larry, and I wanted to let you know that Highway 9 is completely blocked this morning, so don't wait up." A couple of seconds later, Challa's email client dings an alert.
When Challa clicks an icon in the email, Loper's just-recorded message plays through his computer speakers. From here, Challa has several options: He can reply via email, which gets sent to the recipient's phone as a text message; record a voice-message reply using the computer or his phone; or have a text-based phone-to-phone or computer-to-phone dialogue in real time, Instant Messenger — style. "It's fixed and mobile convergence," Challa explains. "Multimedia messaging isn't new by itself, but the flexibility of receiving a message any place is what's interesting about this platform." He sees the Push-to-X platform as akin to the primitive Internet of the early 1990s — a forward-looking framework on which more specialized structures will eventually be erected. "I can add video IP — I can say, 'Hang on, let me show you something,' and there'll be a little 30-second video that'll come directly to your phone. I can add advertising. I can add coupons. I can add commerce. That's the uniqueness."
The next Ecrio product planned in this line — and the first slated for release in the United States — is MoBeam, a program that uses the LEDs on cell phones to create patterns that mimic bar-code sequences. For years, developers have been trying to display scannable bar codes on cell-phone screens — unsuccessfully; light reflecting off the screens interferes with the scanners' detection systems. "Then I thought, What if we get out of the paradigm of trying to read the code off of the screen?" Challa says. "It's looking for light reflections, so why don't we just give it the light it's expecting?" The upshot: Instead of printing out online coupons, movie tickets, and boarding passes — and toting around credit cards and gift cards — consumers will soon be able to store bar codes in their phones. Visa found Challa's idea so revolutionary that it just announced plans to make MoBeam the centerpiece of its upcoming mobile-phone credit-card program.
While Challa's goal of opening new avenues for communication and commerce may be visionary, it's hardly unique; startups all over the world are clamoring to peddle mobile apps to industry giants. What secures Ecrio's place at the mobile vanguard is Challa's unusual willingness to cater to his clients and to truly understand not just their needs but their culture — and not only by singing karaoke. "I've dealt with take-it-all-style negotiations with other U.S. companies," says Tetsuya Mori, who heads the technology venture-capital practice at Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group. "Japanese companies feel refreshed when they deal with Nagesh. His style resonates here — he knows how to make things win-win. I've heard people say, 'I can't say no to Nagesh. I want to find a way to come to terms with him.'" Several years ago, Challa also taught himself Japanese from scratch, listening to language CDs and practicing vocabulary in stolen moments between meetings. ("I didn't have the discipline to learn it formally," he says, in typical self-deprecating fashion, "so I picked it up along the way.")
While Challa works hard at lining up high-profile customers to continue fueling Ecrio's momentum, his true passion is unchanged: seizing seemingly out-there ideas and pursuing them to the hilt. "I've always wanted to do some kind of instant karaoke," he says, back in mad-scientist mode. "If you could take a mainstream song, somehow filter out the voices coming through, and then inject your own through a microphone, that would be so cool." Fanciful? Sure. But to Challa, pursuing business success is a lot like coaxing out unfamiliar Japanese syllables on the karaoke stage. The notes might be a little off-key at first, but when you finally get it right, it's a rush like you wouldn't believe.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.