Asia Catches .com Fever

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    Jain taught Asia what Silicon Valley has known for a long time: though going public is a fabulous way to cash in on the Internet, selling out to someone else can be a sure-fire moneymaker too. Satyam Infoway wanted content popular with overseas Indians to complement its own domestically oriented portal. IndiaWorld was pulling most of its 13 million monthly page views from outside the country. Jain got an unusual windfall because Satyam Infoway is paying the entire purchase price in cash, not in stock, which is more typical in such deals. His initial investment was $50,000.

    It was second-time lucky for Jain, who trained to be an engineer at Columbia University. In 1995, Ravi Database, the software-services company he founded in 1992, went broke. Chastened, Jain embarked on a soul-searching sabbatical in the U.S. What he found was inspiration. Jain noticed that thousands of Indian expatriates had little access to news from home. He figured the Internet was the ideal delivery system.

    The shy, bespectacled Jain set up IndiaWorld the same year with money saved from his job. "I wrote my business plan on Post-it notes," he jokes. The site was built almost entirely using public domain software, such as the free Linux platform, and it was maintained on widely available Apache servers. "In our entire five years, we bought only three software packages--Windows, Office and Photoshop," he boasts.

    The first two years were spent persuading advertisers to take a flyer. Typically, IndiaWorld managed to grow handily in terms of hits while its profit last year was an imperceptible $58,000. But IndiaWorld earned buzz, and Jain suddenly found himself courted by angel investors, foreign venture capitalists and banks eager to lend. In the end, he decided to get out of the game entirely by selling to Satyam Infoway, one of the largest Internet service providers in India, which doesn't allow foreign competition in the field. "We already have a substantial audience in India," says chief executive R. Ramaraj, "and with IndiaWorld, we have acquired an India-interest audience globally."

    Satyam Infoway now claims 30 million page views a month, and its share price has doubled since the IndiaWorld purchase. The deal helped kick off an Internet frenzy among Indian entrepreneurs and financiers, which has been fanned by New Delhi's public commitment to develop India's information-technology sector. Dotcoms are sprouting across the country, spurred additionally by the entry of big international investment funds. Some Indian-born Silicon Valley programmers and engineers are finally coming home to put their skills to use. But Jain has been happy just to put his money in the bank.

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