Mouth piece: Vivek Wadhwa's talent for trumpeting his company shines, but observers want to see another kind of performance.

Author:Maley, Frank
Position::Feature - Company Profile
 
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All morning long, Vivek Wadhwa has been talking up his company. It's a role he excels at as CEO of Relativity Technologies Inc., a Cary software maker. Proof is in this morning's Wall Street Journal, which mentioned him at least six times in 2001. Today's piece is about the problems financial institutions face integrating computer systems after mergers. There's Wadhwa waxing about their woes, and the story notes that Relativity is working with UBS PaineWebber to upgrade its systems. "The fact that we're getting this type of coverage is unbelievable," he crows.

Reporters know he gives good quote -- "I'm honest and direct as you can be," he explains, "to the point of having people hate my guts for being so blunt" -- and call him even when they're not writing about his company. Through trial, error and interrogation of reporters, he's learned how to get their attention: Find a good story, tell it well, return their calls and be persistent. He bugged a Wall Street Journal reporter for four months before a story was written. He's convinced that hype leads to sales.

About 11 a.m., he picks up a voice-mail message from the Washington office of Loudcloud, the Internet consulting company started by Netscape founder Marc Andreesen. "I'd like to discuss working with Relativity Technologies," the caller says. "I saw your article today ..."

It's heady stuff, especially for a five-year-old, money-losing start-up that last year scratched less than $10 million from a fragmented market estimated at $550 million. Like many companies, Relativity had a lousy 2001. Wadhwa, usually more than willing to spout stats, says he's too embarrassed to disclose last year's revenue. "We went through four months when deals stopped closing. I've never been that scared about the company." But, he adds, the company made a profit in the fourth quarter, thanks to cost cutting, and should turn one in 2002.

This year has to be better than last. Despite the buzz the boss generates, industry observers are growing impatient. Relativity has the best strategy in its niche -- selling and supporting software that blends aging mainframes into new networks, says Dale Vecchio, research director of Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., but it needs to reach $20 million in revenue this year or risk raising serious questions about whether it can maintain leadership in its niche. "It's still about leveraging his personality and his marketing skills into actual product revenue," Vecchio adds. "There's a point at which if the reality doesn't follow the message, then someone starts to get skeptical about the message."

In other words, talk is cheap: Vivek Wadhwa must put some big money where his mouth is.

At about 11:30, he stops jawing. Now his mouth must perform an act less valuable to Relativity but more essential to his survival: It's lunchtime. "If we wait too long, the vultures will settle in," he quips. He's referring to his employees, not, as he has on other occasions, venture capitalists. Every Friday, sometimes more often, Wadhwa buys lunch for workers at Relativity's headquarters -- about 60 in all. Today, it's takeout Indian food.

A makeshift buffet lines a counter in the break room, which was already loaded with food. Wadhwa and his wife, both Indian, keep the cupboards and fridge stocked with free snacks and 25-cent soft drinks. Hospitality, he explains, is important in Indian culture. At Christmas, he gives gifts to children of employees. "And they weren't cheesy gifts either," says Myriam Harvey, Relativity's strategic alliance manager. "When my kids opened them up, they were like, 'Wow' -- remote-controlled boats...

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