Believe it or not, there are downsides to being a billionaire. Just ask 37-year-old Arun Pudur, the billionaire founder of Celframe, the world’s second-most popular word processor after Microsoft.
Chennai-born Pudur is the youngest billionaire in Asia. He is also the only Indian billionaire aged under 40. But his wealth has been a burden, as well as a blessing, he says.
“When you become rich, a lot of people develop an entitlement mentality,” he explains. “Especially in India, people think: ‘Oh you’re a Hindu, you need to give me money.’ Then there are the people who blame the rich for them being poor. This attitude I find hard to digest. In reality, we get one bet that pays off but we lose another 300, and we work our arses off to find that one bet.”
Pudur doesn’t give money to ad hoc campaigns, but instead donates 10 percent of his earnings through a personal foundation that focuses on education and equal rights. “I believe everything can be resolved with education,” he says.
Pudur recalls that even growing up with little money, he was taught the value of it. “My father instilled in us that if you want to succeed at anything, you have to give it 100 percent.”
At the age of 13, Pudur persuaded his parents to allow him a job at a nearby garage. The man running it left without warning and Pudur suddenly found himself in charge. He begged his parents to let him continue alongside his schooling and with US$200 he borrowed from his mum (“the first and last time I borrowed money”) he opened a by-appointment garage, using the techniques he’d gleaned from his former employer. The first month he made US$25; five years later he sold the garage for US$186,000 to a local company. Most of that went back to his mother as her return on investment, he recalls with a chuckle.
“The garage was a perfect place to learn about the world as a teenager,” he says. “While my friends were chasing girls, I was learning to be an entrepreneur, learning to sell. If you can convince someone to give you one dollar, the same technique applies to asking someone for US$10,000.”
After getting a degree in commerce at Bangalore University, he got a job running a training centre. “My boss was paying me US$300 a month and the company was making close to US$250,000 monthly. I realised the exponential growth of this era could only come from tech.”
In 2001 Pudur started Celframe, a software producer that last year logged revenues of US$6.8 billion he says, most of which was from sales of Celframe Office. Pudur was astonished at how much money his US distributors were making by selling his software. So he moved into the product sales business, but the first nine months were slow. His breakthrough came when, in 2005, he moved from a distributor to a partner model.
“I called my distributors and offered them 40 percent of all sales made, instead of two to three percent commission, which is the norm. That was a big change because they dropped everything else and worked just for me. We started to see the real money coming in.”
Today the company is still privately owned with no external investors. “We’ve managed to keep everything private, even though it was a huge gamble and I very nearly lost everything,” he says, adding that he plans to take Celframe public in the next two or three years.
In his early days as a billionaire, Pudur loved flashing his cash. “When you get rich you attract a lot of people who help you spend it.” He splashed out on toys galore, including fast cars, lavish homes and around nine private jets, even though several just sat in a hangar gathering dust. He remembers a time that he would walk into Armani and buy 20 suits, and then later realise he didn’t even like them. “I travelled the world for six months and bought everything in sight. I did so much and felt, actually, is that it?” Then he had an epiphany.
“I started to refocus on what I should do to grow other than just sitting with that pot of money that I was just spending and spending. I needed something to challenge myself. I realised my focus should be about building something on my own that will create a vast amount of wealth and touch a lot of people.”
So Pudur sold all but two of his private jets at a loss of around 50 percent of their initial value. “I made a couple into a charter business, the rest I put down to experience.” He diversified his assets into natural resources. “My father advised me that things that come from the earth, which cannot be manufactured, are a great investment,” says Pudur.
He bought gold, platinum, silver and diamond mines in South Africa through his company Pudur Resources, including South Africa’s largest platinum mine. He has bought a diamond-cutting centre and is setting up a luxury jewellery business with his wife, who is a fashion designer. He has invested in value land deals in underdeveloped Asia and Australia.
So what now for the intrepid young billionaire? Pudur is entering the connectivity business, launching a new company called Browsify Corporation, which will link ‘the internet of things’. For example, a toothbrush will contain information that will be connected directly to your dentist, who will send you a text if you need an appointment. The ‘internet of things’ is expected to be the largest device market in the world and is forecasted to be worth US$300 billion by 2020.
And Pudur has personal goals. “We want to start a family and live a normal, simple life, going to the movies like everyone else. People sometimes do recognise me in the street, but I’m no Shah Rukh Khan.”