Harnessing Old School Tech for New Age Success With Vivek Khuller

Vivek Khuller is the President and CEO of Clearfly Communications, a leading voice services and broadband provider fully licensed with the FCC and catering to customers across the United States. An immigrant to the US, Vivek faced cultural adaptations and financial hurdles, including paying himself the minimum wage for three years while rebuilding his business. Under his leadership, Clearfly became a multimillion-dollar enterprise without relying on venture capital, solidifying his place as an ingenious business strategist.

Tune in to this episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast as John Corcoran interviews Vivek Khuller, President and CEO of Clearfly Communications, about his remarkable journey in building a multimillion-dollar business in the landline industry. John delves into Vivek’s early life in India, where he started his first business by lending comic books at Air Force bases. They discussed his immigration journey to the United States and his academic achievements, notably attending Harvard. Vivek also shed some light on critical turning points in his career. After the iPhone and Android emerged, his original business idea faced extinction. However, through a serendipitous partnership with a Montana-based company and a drastic pay cut, he reinvented his business model and guided Clearfly Communications to success.

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • [00:00] How Vivek Khuller turned a background in telecommunications into a multimillion-dollar business
  • [06:15] Insights into multicultural adaptation and its role in professional success
  • [11:44] Vivek’s pivotal experience of developing billion-dollar telecommunication services early in his career
  • [20:21] Navigating market disruptions and pivoting when the iPhone and Android shook the industry landscape
  • [23:27] The critical partnership that led to the creation of Clearfly Communications
  • [27:43] Vivek’s journey to making drastic salary cuts to ensure the survival and growth of Clearfly
  • [33:12] The strategic advantage of running an ‘unsexy’ business when everyone else is chasing the latest tech trends
  • [37:10] Insights into the power of alignment in values and complementary skill sets within a team
  • [45:21] The chance interview that set Vivek on his professional path

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Quotable Moments:

  • “A small team can make a massive difference if you are skilled, motivated, and solve the right problem.”
  • “The idea was less important than the people; with the right partners, we can make anything happen.”
  • “Sometimes, success in business is about aligning your capabilities with an unmet need, even if it’s not the trendiest one.”
  • “Hard work, integrity, and transparency can build the foundation for significant accomplishments in life and business.”
  • “Recognizing when to pivot and adapt is just as important as the initial idea you start with.”

Sponsor: Rise25

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Cofounders Dr. Jeremy Weisz and John Corcoran credit podcasting as being the best thing they have ever done for their businesses. Podcasting connected them with the founders/CEOs of P90xAtariEinstein BagelsMattelRx BarsYPO, EO, Lending Tree, Freshdesk,  and many more.  

The relationships you form through podcasting run deep. Jeremy and John became business partners through podcasting. They have even gone on family vacations and attended weddings of guests who have been on the podcast.

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Rise25 Cofounders, Dr. Jeremy Weisz and John Corcoran, have been podcasting and advising about podcasting since 2008.

Episode Transcript

John Corcoran 0:00

Today we’re talking about how to grow a multimillion dollar business in an unsexy industry. We’re talking about landline telephones. Who needs a landline telephone? Well, it turns out a lot of people do. And also buy zigging when everyone else is zagging. Whenever someone else is chasing shiny objects you sell something that people need. My guest today is Vivek cooler. He’s the founder of clear Feik who ever fly communications. I’ll tell you more about him in a second. So stay tuned.

Chad Franzen 0:29

Welcome to the Smart Business Revolution Podcast where we feature top entrepreneurs, business leaders and thought leaders and ask them how they built few relationships to get where they are today. Now, let’s get started with the show.

John Corcoran 0:45

All right. Welcome, everyone. John Corcoran. Here. I’m the host of this show. And you know, every week I get to talk to interesting CEOs, founders and entrepreneurs from all kinds of different companies. We’ve had Netflix Kinkos, GrubHub, activation, Blizzard, lending tree, OpenTable Kinkos, you name it, check out the archives, you can listen to some of those episodes in the archives. And of course, this episode was brought to you by Rise25, which is my company where we help b2b businesses get client referrals, and strategic partnerships done for your podcast and content marketing. Learn more about us at Rise25.com. 

And first shout out to Paul Ratner of Marble Bridge Funding Group, a great guy introduced me to today’s guests over a baseball game. And his name is, as I said, Vivek Khuller. He’s the President and CEO of Clearfly Communications. And Vivek, you have such an amazing story. You’re an immigrant to this country, came here not knowing the culture, and actually paid yourself minimum wage for three years in the middle of your business, having been in business for many years. Also made it to the number one university in the United States, Harvard University got your degree there. And within 10 years of paying yourself minimum wage, you actually built a multimillion-dollar company, and were able to buy your own plane for the company without raising venture capital. So I’m so excited to share your story with everyone here. But like so many guests, I love to start with your childhood and you grew up in India, your father was actually a fighter pilot, trainer, I believe in the Indian Air Force. And you grew up in small towns, and you saw an opportunity, a way to make a buck. And I think this was really cool. So tell us the story.

Vivek Khuller 2:21

So, John, thank you for the opportunity. Yeah, so the story there is, you know, when we were living in these small Air Force bases, there were actually no libraries, nothing. So you know, if people had books, or they had comics, there was no other way to get access to them, other than to borrow them from others who were perhaps reading the stuff that you wanted to read, or you were interested in. And we didn’t have a lot of money. And, you know, once you read a comic or a book, then you’re always in search of a new one. So, you know, my, my parents or my dad at the time, like, you know, he said, you know, this is all we can afford. 

So what I started doing, in my fifth grade, I was nine years old, at the time, I went to school early, I started lending my collection of about two to 300 comics, to, my father’s fellow Air Force pilots, and making money and, and that money I used in during summers, we used to go to New Delhi, which was a big city. And that’s where I used to go and buy my new stash of comics and come back. And so that was my very first introduction to not just, you know, being able to figure it out how to, you know, like, create a business but also, and as I probably mentioned to you privately, I mean, I was not selling books or comics, I was actually lending them so it was.

John Corcoran 3:51

No, so you can lend them over and over again. So it’s all about the business description-based business. Yeah. recurring revenue baby.

Vivek Khuller 3:59

That is the holy grail in any business. So yeah. 

John Corcoran 4:04

Stumbled on it early. And I’m also picturing like, nine-year-old Vivek walking around on these, like, you know, landing strips with these fighter jets out there. And you’re like passing out comic books and collecting money? 

Vivek Khuller 4:16

Yes, yeah. Then also, you know, it introduced me to everyone. Everyone knew me. All the pilots knew me. All the families knew me then the kids started knowing me. And no, it ended up being a really nice win. situation for everyone. 

John Corcoran 4:32

Yeah. Now one of the things we talked about that I was interested in and curious about with you is, you know, if there was big culture shock for you moving to America, but you actually said that because you, your father, was sent by India around the globe to teach pilots on flying these planes. You grew up in different cultures, and also India’s amazing multicultural place. 25 different languages that you didn’t know a lot of places once you ended up in the United States, you’ve grown up kind of in a multicultural experience.

Vivek Khuller 5:05

You’re absolutely right. So India, as you probably know, has 20 plus distinct languages. It’s a country that came together pretty much, you know, during the British colonial times, until then it was like a bunch of small kingdoms. And so if you’ve lived in different parts of India, it’s not very different from living in different parts of the world. Because the food, the language, the culture, it varies a lot based on where you live. And I was lucky, when I was young, because of my dad’s postings to all these remote Air Force bases all over India, that introduced me to, you know, new parts of the country, which you know, I call it I call it the world. But most importantly, it taught me how to quickly adjust and make new friends. And, and take the best advantage of whatever the new opportunity allows you to do. So you know, so when I came back to when I moved to the US, I pretty much came prepared, because of that upbringing that I had. And it was a lot easier for me than for a lot of other people. Otherwise.

John Corcoran 6:15

Yeah, I think that such an important skill is the ability to make friends in a new place and feel comfortable moving into a new place, new environment, whether it’s a new workplace or college, university, you name it. And for you, one of the things that you fell in love with growing up in India was Clint Eastwood movies. And your goal was to own a car in America, I guess, an American-made car from the 60s 70s era.

Vivek Khuller 6:41

Yes, yes. So Clint Eastwood, I’ve always been a big fan of his, his spaghetti westerns. I used to just watch them, rewatch them. And then, you know, when Dirty Harry and Magnum, his other, you know, other movies came out. And that’s when, you know, the dream of coming to the United States was just like, I was just waiting to finish my school or my college and just get the first opportunity and come to the US. And yeah, I mean, I’ve always been a huge fan and also the comics, are you I was reading in those days, were these Commandos, which were all Second World War comics, so that, you know, that you had a lot of American English and British English in it and cultural, you know, anecdotes. So yeah, I mean, I was always like, it was my dream to come here.

John Corcoran 7:33

And you came, you ended up coming to get a degree, got a master’s degree, and we’re getting two masters degrees, but the first one was at University of Maryland. What was that experience like being at University of Maryland? So you’re like, I’m guessing in your early 20s, when you first landed in the United States?

Vivek Khuller 7:50

Yes. So the University of Maryland was a very interesting, very interesting experience, it was my first introduction to an extremely cold place in those days, it did get pretty cold. Here, it was a very tough program. I would say honestly, it was probably one of the hardest. One of the hardest, academically challenging programs that I’ve attended among the three degrees that I earned over the course of my life. But it truly prepared me very well, for the next phase of my life, which is, you know, you go into work and you go into, you get faced with a lot of very challenging situations, how you don’t give up and you just make it happen both by working hard and by seeking help whenever is required and as possible.

John Corcoran 8:40

And I believe I may be confusing stories here. But you were looking for a job after you’re about to graduate from the University of Maryland. They made it extremely hard on non natives on immigrants just to interview for positions. Is that right? Yes. So

Vivek Khuller 8:58

You know, there was a double whammy. There wasn’t it was the mid-90s The country was going through a recession. In Maryland, being situated near Washington, DC, most of the jobs were, you know, federal government or defense-oriented, and they really required either citizenship or permanent residency at the bare minimum. And as a foreign student, you couldn’t go and interview on campus. I mean, the campus interviews were only reserved for permanent residents and citizens at the time. So if you were a foreign student, you could suit up in a suit and tie and show up at seven in the morning and just sit there and if someone didn’t show up then the interviewer had the option of taking you on for an interview and I was doing that on a pretty regular basis whenever my glasses allowed and that’s how the door to my very first job opened up.

John Corcoran 9:53

And so then this ends up being a unit going to work for the predecessor company of Verizon. It was bad I’ll Atlantic. Yeah, and this was a really interesting opportunity because well, first of all, even in telecommunications, which over the last 30 years has had dramatic amounts of change. You know, just in terms of, you know, cell phones, and before that, you know, pagers and, and the way that we communicate has changed dramatically, but you were in a small team at Bell Atlantic, and they were looking for how they could increase revenue for the company, but they were highly regulated. So there weren’t that many opportunities. So tell us about creative ways you found opportunities to increase revenue.

Vivek Khuller 10:34

Yeah, so you know, like, after the interviews, I would sit at home and wait for the phone ring, watching prices, right, you know, Bob Barker, and if you remember him, yeah. And one day, one day, the phone actually did ring, and it was a call from Bell Atlantic. And they wanted me to come back up for a follow up interview. And at the time, you know, in those days, perhaps even today, I don’t know how much, how many, how much the things have changed. But things were mostly running on mainframes. And they were looking for software programmers with good experience running on Unix machines and Sun Microsystems, the, you know, the workstations had just come out. 

So they were looking for people who had experience and were able to write code on these new platforms in C, C++, Unix. And so I get this call. And they said, you know, we are looking for somebody to join our new services Development Lab. And guess what the job was job was to help program these new services that we take for granted today, things like call waiting, call forwarding, hosted voicemail in those days, you know, phones used to be.

John Corcoran 11:42

You were answering machines.

Vivek Khuller 11:44

Yes, exactly. So how to put that into the cloud. And, these services did not exist, right. So if the phone rang, you didn’t know who was calling you. And if somebody was trying to reach you in the background, that person will just get a visit and you wouldn’t know that someone else was trying to reach you. So there was none of these services available. And they, at the time, the company wanted to bring these new services to market and I was part of the team that actually one of the first people who were helped program, all of these new services and bringing them to market, in the battle headache region, which you know, from there on, it’s all like, now we take these things for granted.