Divya Narendra looks nothing like Max Minghella, who plays him in David Fincher’s The Social Network. He’s also not best pleased to be remembered only as the guy who took Zuckerberg to court. He says he’s learnt from that episode and has moved on. To Wall Street, to be precise, where he’s set up SumZero, a professional network for hedge funds and the private equity community. In India recently, Narendra spoke to Fortune India about that case, his business plans, and more. Edited excerpts:
Why did you set up SumZero?
I was working at a hedge fund and I realised that my colleagues weren’t paying attention to Wall Street research. I learnt about the problems with Wall Street research, the conflicts of interests, and the lack of skin in the game, which means the analysts making recommendations don’t necessarily own the securities or stocks they recommend. I also realised that there is this huge untapped body of intellectual property that was being kept within the four walls of these hedge funds, mutual funds, and PE firms. Nobody was trying to disseminate it.
What is the incentive for them to share that research?
Professionals who work at investment firms talk about a particular security only after they have built a position on it. Let’s say you are an analyst and you take a position on Netflix. Once you have a full position, you want everyone to understand why you bought Netflix because if they buy the scrip, the price will go up. Carl Icahn tweets about his position in Apple because he wants other people to know why he bought Apple. That’s kind of what we are doing with SumZero. But we have done it with reciprocity in mind. If you want access to your peers’ research and ideas, you have to post one of your own. You get access to the community for six months for every idea that you post. It also helps analysts use their research to build their own brand.
How did the Street react?
This is our second year as a fulltime business. We raised our main seed round in June 2012 and I poached my first engineer from Goldman [Sachs]. We have some well-known, sophisticated clients now. I was doing sales pretty much all of 2013. I now have two others who are helping me.
How does SumZero see India?
India is not a priority because the asset management industry here is very small. Just to give a context, the mutual fund industry in India is $143 billion (Rs 8.7 lakh crore) while in the U.S. it is $12 trillion. It is a little premature for us to build our business here. But that’s going to change because if Indians continue to accumulate wealth, they will want to diversify out of gold and real estate.
When you were in college, did you expect that you would be working on Wall Street?
Most entrepreneurs have ideas based on their work experiences and this was an idea that came when I was working at a hedge fund. But when I was in school, I don’t think I had an idea what I wanted to do specifically. I knew that I wanted to make an impact, build a team, and do something creative. For me, entrepreneurship was a natural consequence of that. After the Facebook thing happened, I decided to move to Wall Street.
Do you think that the things which can go wrong when you start up are often underplayed?
You typically don’t read about the cases where things go wrong. The glamourisation of startups is a global phenomenon. New York, Silicon Valley, Israel, India—wherever there’s tech activity, there are people starting up. India is probably more ambitious than any other culture at the moment. People here love hearing success stories and I can see it in their eyes and their energy. The reality is that for every successful startup, there’s an endless list of failed ones or ones that stutter away.
How important is the equation between co-founders?
Often the reasons why companies fail are not product related. It could be the dynamics between founders. I was reading in the papers that the chief product officer at Twitter left—because he didn’t share the CEO’s vision. As I said, people don’t want to do case studies on failures. [In the Facebook affair] I didn’t plan on having an idea taken from me. As an entrepreneur, you want to create a culture where people are compensated fairly. This is difficult for some folks because they are greedy. It is a capitalistic mentality that more is better. But the reality is that if you want to grow the pie, everyone has to benefit. Taking that long-term approach is important.
Your Wikipedia page is mostly about the lawsuits you have been involved in. Does that annoy you?
I think most of it was written during the Facebook lawsuits. Once I graduated, I stopped thinking about that episode and that’s why I have been able to build another business. I have learnt a lot from all of it, and I think I am a better entrepreneur today because of all that happened. I don’t think a lawsuit defines you as a person. I can’t change the public perception in a short period, but in the long run there are a lot of goals that I want to achieve and that will add to my story in a positive way.
How have social networks evolved since the early days?
There is an inner marketer in everyone and the Internet allows that [to emerge]. For me the idea [for Harvard Connection] was that quality control had everything to do with the affiliation to the university. People were able to replicate online their natural affinity [to share]. The intended use for networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn is getting blurred because people are using Facebook to find jobs or LinkedIn to establish connections other than professional ones.