Cay Reads


Vikram Somaya is  a quiet, educated member of startupia. He makes his way through the nooks and crannies of Silicon Alley with charm, verve and some small order of wit and resides in the UWS with the wife, the dog and the Turkindian peanut-boy.


The Perfect Knot - 9/16/01

I love the perfect tie knot. After my years in high school, where a tie was a necessity, it was a rare day that demanded a tie and by inference the perfect tie knot. On the morning of Tuesday 11th of September, I think I managed to achieve the perfect tie knot.

The World Financial Center, resplendent in its domed perfection had been the stage for a presentation by our company on September 10th and a group of us were headed back in, laptops in hand to make another presentation to a large financial services company. My little technology start-up was going up against some very large movers and shakers in the technology space and there had been much preparation and anxiety over the final presentation.

I never wake up early, ever. I am allergic to early morning sunshine. This happened in my years in college when a nocturnal existence seemed the only way to exist. On the morning of September 11th, my eyes popped open at 7 am and they entirely refused to close again though I made a game effort for exactly 11 minutes to stay still and hope the sandman came back for a quick visit. When I finally conceded defeat, I decided that in order to make myself feel better, I should not just dress for success but actually eat breakfast – another first for the year.

My cabbie was a garrulous Pakistani who wanted extensive information on my lineage. Upon hearing that I was a fellow-citizen of the subcontinent, he then decided that his next mission was to push his taxi to its mechanical best in order to render perfect service. As I jerked around the cab down the FDR drive towards Downtown, I hit the voicemail on my cellphone and listened to people asking for work and return calls and made a short list in my head for the hour I would spend in the World Financial Center before the other members of my team arrived. One of them was a call from my one of my managers, David Murphy and I knew that I had dropped him off at the World Trade Center Marriot the day before after the previous day’s meetings.

I hit the redial and David’s hearty voice came onto the phone with some unfortunate news. He went on to tell me about how two of our group, Bassel and Steve were sitting in an airport with their flights pushed out to a 12 noon arrival from a 9 am arrival. David said that that Paul Volk, the coordinator of our meeting was now making calls to reschedule the meeting with the company at the WFC and that I should just sit tight and wait on a new time.

I looked down at my perfectly knotted tie and knew that I was looking far too good to go back home. I thanked David and told him to keep me posted on how things were shaping up and decided, in a move that changed my life to keep heading downtown to have my breakfast, at the World Trade Center instead. I remember thinking to myself – “have cellphone, will travel.”

The cab pulled off as I continued to listen to voicemail and chugged along West Street. Above me the shadow of the mighty downtown buildings were dwarfed by the shadows created by those greatest of New york duoliths – the World Trade Center Twins.

As I leaned back to shut my eyes for a minute, my cabbie, in typical New York style overshot World Trade 2, as I opened my mouth to tell him to pull over, we both heard a delicate thrumming. The sound was not as loud as people would expect. The first plane, to my eyes, seemed to float in, almost delicately, the twin engines rumbling almost ashamedly as it impacted the building above me. I watched out the window in shock as above me the engines burst into white-hot radiance along the upper side of the World Trade Center 2. The cab jumped, just once and then there was silence. Money seemed to fly into my hand and I thrust the money into my cabbie’s hands and then ducked back into the cab for the receipt. I wanted that receipt. I wanted something to show I was there. I pulled my bags out and walked towards the bridge right by World Trade Center 2, about 30 feet from the building itself. My eyes were glued to the great smoking crater in the side of World Trade Center 2. There was a strange quiet to the scene after this first impact. There was no panic in the street. People walked around, slightly dazed talking about how they had seen the plane or asking what had happened and why the building was sending plumes of liquid-dark smoke into the glorious summer sky.

The side of the building was not raining down debris. What was coming down was paper, reams of paper, great streaming curlicues of shredded paper. There was absolutely no sign of human presence at first. The building shedded paper blood and leaked flame from the great wound but all of us saw nothing that spoke to the human knot in the great building-city.

As I got out and stared at the great wound, my phone flew into my hand begging attention and with a start I remembered that David was still in the World Trade Center Marriot. I thumbed through my numbers and hit the redial again my eyes straying back up to the great inferno. David got on the phone and without waiting words poured out of my body – of planes hitting buildings and burning and bombs and the world trade center and panic. David listened and I felt disbelief and thankfully he said he would move and went to do so. I hung up and pulled out my blackberry email pager and started hitting letters, words that I needed to write. As they flowed out onto the screen addressed to my company, I looked back up and the side of the building gaped at me, lost and hurt.

I remember conversations flying through the small knot of the people standing the shadow of the enormous buildings. A man next to me looked up at the 107 stories of steel at glass towering above him and mused out loud – “I wonder why it’s not falling?” I remember saying – “They have some incredible internal reinforcement”. All of us were standing in the middle of the subsequent-debris zone between the two bridges in front of the World Trade Center 2 building about 10 feet from the ones closer to the building. As one we looked up, unable to move or tear ourselves away from the scene. It seemed like an hour, but I am told eighteen minutes later, the sky ripped apart once again.

I was watching the paper fall when the air started thrumming again and like every corny action movie, the seconds seemed to lengthen into hours as a huge, unbelievably large plane shot out of the gap between the buildings beyond and ripped away all our shock, our confusion, our interest in staying there. The plane was huge, more then IMAX-huge, more then Stallone-Ah-nuld huge, larger then anything I had ever seen before and so close I felt that I could reach out and touch it. The plane was almost vertical from where I stood – the United logo and colors were so white and vivid that for minutes after the plane impacted, they stood out in my vision like fiery sky-writing, refusing to go away. I could hear the unreal whine of jet engines at 500 feet away, the turbines whining upwards as the plane seemed to leap forward into the side of World Trade 1 as it vanished from view behind the great bulk of the already burning World Trade 2 building.

For a second, there was a great stillness and then the fire erupted out from the building, the plane vaporizing and repeating the same magic trick that the first jet displayed in front of my disbelieving eyes. As one creature, the 100 or so of us in front of the building turned and ran. I heard screaming and saw eyes darting to the sky searching for more of these angels of death. I heard a familiar scream – my own as I felt the laptop bag slam into my jacket again and again as I ran through the crowds heading down West St. Just before we reached the second bridge, my legs stopped moving and I had to stop and turn. My blackberry and phone leaped in my hands and more emails poured out as I hit dial and redial on number after number. I poured words out into the phone as I tried to contract David. I left messages and called others, my mind reeling. Around me tens of people watched me dial and then asked for my phone, which was then used to call others and others and more others. About ten minutes into this the phone stopped working, the delicate LED bars fading into nothingness as the cell phone signals died.

Just before I ran, just before the United Airlines plane hit, I saw my first jumper. I didn’t truly register her till I ran but I saw her leap – swan graceful out into the burning air. As I waited near the second bridge, I saw others. I remember not believing it at first. How was it possible that anyone would jump from 95 stories above the ground, it had to be debris or paper or jet parts or anything. But it wasn’t anything, it was people. People dressed like me or any of the many other workers gathered around me watching with eyes that were already glazed and dead. I sat down on the curb, my phone still dialing and watched as the buildings burned and the people leapt.

During the days that follow, the image that comes back – unbidden and unwelcome is the sight of the second plane. It came in faster then death and huge – unstoppable and that one image for me seemed to bridge the gap between the real and the unreal. However, at night, when I Cannot sleep, the people come back again and again and again. There were so many flailing limbs and delicate hands falling, seemingly forever before they hit the debris at the base. The air around them seemed to crackle and rip as they fell while the paper continued to drift down around them mocking their efforts to slow themselves down as they cut through the air.

I looked up at the helicopters circling the building, wondering why no-one could get closer and pull some of those people off the building. The smoke poured out of the tops of the buildings and the helicopters swung around but never close enough to be any comfort. And still the people jumped. I saw a couple, hands clasped, a group falling like clothed birds, individuals slipping off the burning face and plunging down past the staring glass stories.

I couldn’t move, couldn’t leave, couldn’t stop looking. There was no greater shock to me then making the jump from cinema and television to unadulterated vision and being ripped apart by the emotional sandstorm that whips through one, wearing down resolve, courage, focus and conscience. I couldn’t run towards the Marriot, I couldn’t run towards the building, I couldn’t do anything but sit and watch people jump.

I felt the need to tell others though and as my phone sat stilled, my little blackberry hummed and sang out emails to the people in my life. They were short, ten words or under but there were many of them.

As I had been sitting there, policemen had been directing traffic out of the area and moving people but suddenly there seemed to be a rawness and a bicycle policeman walked upto us and got us on our feet. “You have to move”, he kept saying and every time he walked out of my immediate point of view, I sat down again, ,my eyes straying upto the burning towers. Nearly an hour had passed.

Finally the policeman walked up to me and said “ Please  - you need to start walking” and I turned and walked. I walked down West St., my head spinning. Around me I watched people come out of office and side streets, looking behind me at the great burning edifices. I didn’t stop, I needed a phone. Suddenly I heard a great groan. I was now nearly 12 blocks away and turned to watch one of the buildings lean and then collapse, it’s spirit drained. I turned and kept walking to the Saatchi and Saatchi building on Houston and Hudson where I walked in as people flooded out and headed to an office I once used to work at. The office was nearly empty save for some old friends who were contacting friends who lived downtown and evacuating the few remaining employees. Charles Rosen, a good friend watched me walk in as he worriedly called friends and colleagues who might have been in the area. I walked to a phone and called David again and again. Finally I called my manager in Seattle, Nick Besbeas who I had tried unsuccessfully to reach from my cellphone and left a voicemail asking about David – saying I had sent him email and voicemail but had heard nothing and I was very worried.

After some more calls, I had to leave. As I walked through the city, people stood around me rooted in shock watching downtown burn. I didn’t look back once. I just wanted to be home.

I remember walking through Greenwich Village and hearing about the Pentagon. On the streets, televisions had been hooked up to extension cords and people were gathered five thick around each screen. I didn’t want to watch. I just wanted to be home.

I remember walking into the house, the grief just beginning to hit as my roommate Minki got up in concern. The TV sang and seemed to take away a lot of the reality of the situation. The familiar screen burbled with terrible images but it had done so many times in the past – real and cine-created and they distance me immediately into a quiet sense of coma. I felt the dullness vanish replaced by a keening self-pity that was both repulsive and comforting at the same time.

Until I walked into the house, I had not touched my perfect tie-knot. I finally took it off and slept that night wondering when I would enjoy the perfect tie-knot again and hoping that questioning would keep away the images that still flash past my eyes.










Wayback through the Interwebs

The other day, as part of a strategy exercise, I was playing around on waybackmachine. This is a fabulously interesting site that has taken snapshots of seminal web sites from their veritable infancy all the way to the here and now. They've done it on a fairly regular basis and in the course of my meanderings, there emerged quite a few little nuggets.

However, gentle reader, most of these nuggets have already been converted from raw ore into finely crafted faux tribal jewelry and sold to the local tribes. So I'll stay away from talking about why this site showed such epic prognostication while that one failed to see the le graphique modern before it slapped it in the face and instead will talk a little about my personal journey through the wayback.

My first exposure to the internets was in the glowing green screens of a PC-AT in fair Mumbai while putting together college applications. I fear it is a mark of my growing age that I preceded the internet and perhaps that shall be written of us born in 1976, year of the dragon and incidentally the last year of Generation X before it puddled into the insouciant Gen Y - They were born before the Internet!

That quickly evolved into my trek off to New Haven for freshman year, a fabulous new Apple 520 (the black and white laptop not the super awesome, shortly after released 520c) which had a ..gasp...640x480 screen and the first TRACKPAD !!!!and ...built in ethernet!!! That having been said, I found out much later, our freshman class, the class of 1998, was the first class at Yale that didn't need to put in a floppy to access email. This led to a statistic that I often quote, though I can't for the life of me remember the source, that while 98% of freshmen were on email, only 2% of seniors in 1994 were the same - unreal.


I still remember tumbling through the glory of a unix command line to access pine. There were no whizz-bang GUI's for email back then, just the clean access of pine and elm and mail. Then I discovered..and only our generation can truely appreciate this - the unix command finger - FINGER !!!! and with this command once could dance through the cyberwaves and find oneself eyeing people in distant oberlin or cornell or any other school system whose finger address one could figure out - hallelujah !! THEN !!! ntalk/ytalk/gtalk suddenly we had instant messaging before there was instant messaing and I could talk to friends in Warwick, UK as easy as pie. I think about having to describe this to my 6 month old son Karan when he's a little older and I chuckle because even now it seems to absolutely prehistoric as to absolutely boggle the mind.


My next clear memory apart from the fog of NCSA mosaic and the glories of going color was buying in 1996 (I think) and building this fabulously silly site that had a massive image of Wright's Falling Water in the middle with scads of fabulous links that went absolutely nowhere really. In thinking back, it was one of my better designs for - the site that one day my child will inherit and treasure beyond gems or glowing tapestry.


I started writing a blog when I graduated in 1998 when blogs still weren't quite the thing to be doing. I was young and in my first job in New York and had a little time to kill as yet and writing about my days on the as yet wild and untamed internet seemed like a fine fun way to spend some time. I remember finding out one day that folk I absolutely had no time for in Bombay had found the thing and circulated the link - to this day I'm not sure how it happened - and I had to take it down in a hurry. The reason being that I had rather bared my soul on it in a most silly departure from common sense and so had to extinguish any trace of it for a while.


Whilst working at Cliff Freeman, I helped with evaluating and helping to put into perspective many of these young internet plays for the group I worked for and they became more interesting to me than the brand work I was focused on, that led to Primary Knowledge and my first startup.


That's when the interwebs became all encompassing and the story becomes rather too hectic for one blog post. What a wonderful ride. Internets - you are fabulous.


3 Tek-molo-gez that have touched my life

I twittered a link from CNET earlier today talking about an issue where if live tv shows run over, it tends to play havoc on a DVR recording schedule as the channel does not push an update to the electronic program guide telling it that the following show started late, and hence, the DVR needs to tape a couple of minutes past the regular scheduled end time.

Phew. A sentence that is a paragraph! Huzzah!

Moving right along, that little incident made me think about the few devices that have absolutely changed my life and I decided to list off my recent personal favorites in no particular order:

1. Kindle 2: I am unabashed about the fact that I’m a reader. As far back as I can remember and often to the detriment of my social life, I’ve been wandering around with a book. These days, there’s a element of chic to being an utter bookworm but that aura of cool certainly did not exist when I was younger – it was just what I did.
Having said that, the particular problem I labor under right now, is my wife’s increasing lack of patience around my insisting on buying all my books and additionally having to buy more and more shelf space in order to store them all. In New York, this has resulted in us having a less than optimal space situation.
So, while I have been carefully watching the ebook scene, my internal jury was definitely out on what I’d seen and it wasn’t until my kindle2 arrived that I finally experienced a full-fledged ebook experience. I absolutely adore it. There have been other wonderful reviews of the book. However, my favorite point within any review was made by Steven B. Johnson, author and entrepreneur who writes in his blog :

“7. When he was on John Stewart, Jeff Bezos mentioned that the Kindle was great for one-handed reading, which got a salacious chuckle from the audience (and Stewart), but I think it's best for no-handed reading: i.e., when you're reading while eating a meal, one of life's great pleasures. It's almost impossible to read a paperback while eating, and you really have to snap the spine of a hardcover to get it to lie flat, but the Kindle just sits there on the table helpfully while you cut up your teriyaki.”

Such insight. It almost brought a tear to my eye.

The e-ink screen, the size and portability, that glory that is Whispernet and finally, its compact size and book storing ability has absolutely won me over and to other Readers I say, “Get one, now.”

2. The DVR: Since I graduated college, I am also an unabashed TV watcher and it seems like every year, the stories get more compelling, the actors more riveting and the science more engrossing. My television and sound are now more akin to theaters of yesteryear than the idiotbox of yore and while there is a load of rubbish on the tube – some of which I watch with gleeful abandon, there is also a lot of fantastic content.

I’m trying to remember what life was like before the DVR and it’s really hard to do. In fact I’m even trying to remember what life was like before the dual tuner DVR (for those difficult-to-pick nights) and even that memory is now hazy. Perhaps the fact that I barely, if ever watched TV as a child gives me a viewpoint that is somewhat skewed but my interest in television seems to have mirrored the rapid rise in quality and technology in the last ten years. Ten years from now, my son, Karan, is going to get a giggle when he reads this but I’m sticking with my story.

We have multiple DVR’s and I’m not afraid to say it. Hooray for TV on your own time!

3. The Flip MinoHD: Having been gifted a teched out Sony HDCamcorder before the birth of our son, we felt like we were all set. The camera caught, in stunning HD, his birth and then, with a few exceptions, lay in cold and solitary splendor, it being simply too big to carry everywhere he might pull a Cute. Then, a recent mother in India introduced us to the Flip and we went online, customized a new FlipHD and hit Checkout.

The Flip is now a constant part of our lives. It’s tiny, goes everywhere, is absolutely idiot-proof and takes incredibly sharp 720p video. 5 months later, it rightfully sells to Cisco for a half billion dollars – well played.

I had been recommending the Flip left, right and center and when my cousin flew in from Holland for a few days, I strongly suggested he pick one up. Shortly after, I got a call from him at J&R, asking whether he should buy the Flip or the Sony and I was terribly confused, until I found out that Sony has unleashed a Flip-killer with all the cuteness of a pumpkin pikachu. Imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery.

I thought about continuing down this path through the ipod and my newest MBPro but really these three stick out as the most life-changing little oddments in my life in the last year. The DVR is much older and yet the massive amount of new HD content made available lately give it a new lease on life-changing. I do love me some Tek-mology.



For the last month and some, I've been working with a new, very early stage firm. I think the science is fantastic, the people are eager and bright and the opportunity is hockey-sticky. Those are all good things.

It makes me think about being a startup-monkey in its entirety and on balance, how much joy it has provided me. I've worked at a couple of different sized startups and have been subjected to a variety of cultures - some introspective and genius-y, some cold and one-note, some warm and silly and all of them have been informative in one way or another.

Certainly informative about media and technology and lots of standard business concepts - leadership, management, operations blah blah. Most interestingly, it has been informative about my own personal boundaries.

I do believe that startups are far more of a crucible than most corporate environments. They are raw, heady and fairly unfiltered and this gives one the opportunity to make some real discoveries about the composition of your backbone. Is it made of titanium or month old cheese from the back of a drawer?

What's been even more interesting has been the unescapable realization that sometimes the cheese has a function. I've often seen those titanium cyborgs walk straight into brick walls and it hasn't been pretty. I guess if I wanted pretty, I'd be working....hmm...there is no pretty corporate environment, is there?

All said, I love earlymania and have missed it.



2 Million Minutes: My Big Fat Indian Life

A couple of weeks ago, a  friend sent me the link to 2 Million Minutes, a fascinating documentary about the differences in the educational systems of India, China and the US. I immediately bought the DVD and finally got to watching it this weekend.



Produced by Robert A. Compton, a venture capitalist, entrepreneur and generally enlightened soul, the movie is described in their release thusly:

  This film takes a deeper look at how the three super powers of the 21st Century - China, India and the United  States - are preparing their students for the future. As we follow two students - a boy and a girl - from each of these countries, we compose a global snapshot of education, from the viewpoint of kids preparing for their future.

The 2 million minutes of the title refers to the 4 years these kids spend in high school and simply and elegantly walks through the lives of kids from these three very different part of the world. I thought this was a very brave work and one that will inevitably not get as much interest or kudos as it deserves. I would encourage you to find a screening or buy a DVD and make up your own mind. I thought it both interesting and compelling.

I went to school in India. I started at the Cathedral and John Connon School when I was 5 and graduated in 1994 at the age of 17 feeling like I had been given an incredible start to the rest of my life. Cathedral was academically extremely rigorous, but encouraged intramural sport, the arts, calligraphy, the baking of ...the burning of cheese straws and the building of some of my most oldest and strongest relationships.

 When i first came to college in America, (Cathedral sends ~90% of its graduating class to universities outside India), one of the first things that amazed me about some of the undergraduates who surrounded me were how many had difficult high school experiences. When I delved a little deeper into some of these stories, they often had a common thread. The difficulty came not from the academics or indeed the school itself, but most often from their social interactions - the cliques, the crews, the groups and drawn lines.

At the time it just confused me. Years later, I've had a lot of time to dwell upon some of the reasons I might have misinterpreted these stories or indeed overestimated myself.

 My school was easy in so many ways because it was almost entirely homogenous. Most every child who went there, was socio-economically very similar to the other 50 kids in our graduating class. Our parents knew each other, we travelled to the same places, went to the same places, were member of the same clubs and did not have a lot of interaction with the wide world outside our walls - physical or virtual. If one was to equate this back to our biological origins, there was very little reason for any xenophobia at all and it gave our little society a wonderful bubble-like comfort.

College was for was exactly what my parents hoped it would be. A place where I was exposed to a world wholly different from the one in which I was raised and one that both opened my eyes as well as bared my soul in so many unexpected ways. More than ever before, I was exposed to brilliance, pettiness, difference, racism, love and indeed the wide wide world itself. it was a tremendously humbling experience and one I treasure beyond all telling.

I now live in New York City with my lovely Turkish wife and it seems that our unborn children will be raised in the United States. Sometimes I have moments when I wish I could give my offspring exactly the same childhood that I went through. There was not one minute I would have changed. Then I think about how the world has changed and how my perception of myself has evolved and all I can wish for my children is that they live life, wherever it may be, surrounded with just as many people who loved, cherished and nurtured them as those that held me in the palms of their hands.

I will be looking for schools in this country that cherishes kids as much as I was cherished at Cathedral. I hope documentaries like 2 million minutes will make that an easy search.