May 23, 2005
Interview with Sandipan Bhanot CEO of Knowlent
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Jack Horgan - Contributing Editor

by Jack Horgan - Contributing Editor
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Knowlent Corporation is an electronic design automation software and Electrical Verification intellectual property startup company headquartered in Santa Clara, California. Knowlent offers products to verify and help debug the electrical layer of interface protocols such as PCI-Express, Serial ATA, XAUI, and DDR2. The firm's Opal product line is analogous to digital test-bench verification tools for standard interfaces, except that Opal operates at the electrical (analog) level of the interface. Opal works in conjunction with the most popular commercially available circuit or fast-spice simulators.

Sandipan Bhanot is the Founder and CEO. He has a 16 years track record in the EDA industry in various engineering, marketing and sales management roles. Before founding Knowlent, Sandipan was the senior product manager for the Silicon Ensemble product line at Cadence Design Systems. Before Cadence, he worked at Synopsys and SCL.

What was you motivation in starting Knowlent?

I always wanted to do something on my own. When I left Synopsys, I was thinking mainly I can do xyz but eventually ended up working for Cadence which was very good. I was an R&D engineer and now started working on my MBA. I made the transition direct to product marketing. After Cadence, it was around 2000, when everyone was becoming mega millionaires. I resisted the temptation to go into a but towards the end it was too much. It seemed that I was the only guy not jumping into new things. Maybe the valuations were somehow sustainable. Maybe, I was the only guy who didn't get it. So I ended up joining a I joined with the understanding, no the expectation, that people
joining at that time would make about $30 million. I was about employee number 100. The company's evaluation at that time was $100 million. Within 3 months it went to $850 million and 750 employees. Can you believe that? They were growing very, very fast. But then something started feeling wrong. It turned out that the bubble had finally burst. I ended up leaving and not making even $300. I thought that it was sign from God, basically saying that this is the time you can do something. After that I didn't send resumes to anybody. It was very clear that this was the time to go do something on my own.

What was the name of that company?

Loudcloud, the Mark Andressen company. I was used to looking at things in a strategic way and I could not figure out for the life of me, why they were doing certain things that they were doing. It just got to the point where it didn't make any sense from either perspective. It was kind of mutual that I left.

What were you looking for?

It was kind of the complete opposite of the VC driven, fully thought out MBA (even though I had an MBA at this point) type of venture. The start was more like a body shop. The first thing was somehow to get to a level where I was getting x dollars per month, where I could sustain myself. Very quickly I hooked up with the Tempus Fugit guys, the company that finally became Jasper Design Automation. At the time it was just the two founders, both were engineering oriented guys, PhDs from Berkley. With my marketing stuff, I thought hey, I can help you guys get sales but not really join you because that was not something I wanted to do. For the first six months working with them, I was trying to do sales. I had never done sales before in my life. It was picking up the phone, calling a customer. I got familiarized with the whole cold calling to close process. That was a very good experience. Here we were in the worst recession. We were trying to sell their products, sort of formal verification. The market itself had collapsed. We were a no name entity with no funding and just three guys. Six months down the line I was able to sell something and direct something into Knowlent. All this time I was thinking about what to do. But it was survival first and then thinking through what can we possible achieve. During that time as the marketing person for SI I would go to the library vendors and say why you need to do this, why you need to provide this and that from the library so people could use it. I would get blank stares from people all around. It became very clear to me that it was not a very scaleable business model. So I focused away from the on-chip SI to off-chip SI. It was all real-time marketing research. I started throwing that idea at people. Folks were very receptive. I hooked up with a few friends who could actually design those things. The first six to eight months we did some consulting around IO design and signal integrity. This gave me more insight into exactly what the problem was that people were trying to solve. We
started building the product in late 2002. That's when the first official employee was brought on board.

This was in response to real customer problems that people want to pay money for. Going back to survival time, if people are not interest and don't want to pay for it, it's just research. We were very pragmatic.

How did you convince first yourself and later customers that what your product did what you were claiming?

The consulting came in very handy. We were essentially doing now what we had been doing using manual methods. People were paying us big dollars per hour. Customers would ask how much time it would take. We would say 200 hours. That was normal to them. It was alright, it was the way it was supposed to be. As a software person I would look at it and ask exactly what are you doing. You just do this and that, and then take this measurement. The value to me became very clear from then on. Initially, it was primarily a productivity thing. Overtime as we got more heavyweights into the company, it also became domain knowledge that many people might not have.

My question was not on the value of the solution but rather whether what you were developing did what you said it did.

One of our customers told us that if you think you will be able to check compliance, I have a device and a netlist for it. The silicon came back and it is bad. I am willing to give you the netlist. You run your product and tell me what I am seeing in the lab. So we spent about a week and were able to exactly pinpoint the problem in the netlist. That was the beginning of a relationship with that particular customer.

So prospects will likely benchmark your product with a design that they have had or are having trouble with?

That is the most common way. But overtime it is brand building Customers and prospects start trusting that you really do what you say you do.

You have twelve employees today. What is the marketing strategy for growth?

The marketing strategy is letting people know we exist, working with a PR firm (Georgia Marszalek, ValleyPR). We think that is extremely important. We just got word that our paper was accepted in the ARM's Developer Conference. We are going to DAC not with just a 10x10 both but with a 20x20 booth that should hopefully get us noticed. There's a PR/Brand building strategy that is very important.

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-- Jack Horgan, Contributing Editor.


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