Tech entrepreneur Sumir Karayi: 'I went to one of the worst schools in the country'

The founder of IT firm 1E on failing fast, British innovation and why you can't beat cyberattacks with high walls.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 05 Jun 2018

Adversity, it is often said, can be a spur to achievement. That certainly seems to hold true in the case of Sumir Karayi, founder and CEO of software management business 1E. ‘The school I went to [in south east London] was the definition of a sump school. There was lots of bullying and the teachers were just absent,’ says the India- born tech entrepreneur, whose family moved to the UK when he was 14. ‘I had my nose broken, black eyes, the whole lot. It should have been called a Borstal.’

It must have been a sink-or-swim situation, so how did he stay afloat? ‘I just stopped going to school and educated myself,’ he says. It might not have gone down too well with the authorities had they known, but the unconventional DIY approach worked. He managed to get into Warwick University to study electronic engineering, where his life took a huge turn for the better. ‘Warwick was so refreshing and just great, actually. I saw that an educational establishment can be a joyful place.’

Not exactly a text book start to a career in tech, but it hasn’t stopped former Microsoft systems engineer Karayi from building an international business based on software lifecycle automation.

By enabling large organisations to keep their Windows systems up to date automatically, 1E’s products help manage the complexity and reduce the cost of running software applications across many thousands of ‘endpoints’ – typically desktop PC on corporate networks. ‘Our job is to help make IT a bit more consumable and more secure, providing automated solutions to help them adopt the latest tech, and to do it all at scale’ he says.

1E started out as a consultancy based in his west Ealing flat in 1997, but soon morphed into a software business thanks to lucky breaks with a few large customers back in the day. ‘We had a call from [US financial services giant] State Farm. They had a simple problem - they couldn’t update their machines. They had 180,000 employees and 19,000 sites and in those days it was taking them three or four weeks to get software patches out.

‘We wrote some software to automate it, and the first time they did an update it only took four hours.’

Why is the business called 1E? Partly because he wanted a two-letter domain name – the height of geek credibility in the late 90s when he was starting out. But mostly because 1E is the fatal error code thrown out by windows PCs when they crash and suffer the fabled Blue Screen of Death. ‘Our promise to our customers was that they would not see that,’ he says.

The cyber wars

In the wake of recent cyberattacks like wannacry and notpetya, security is an increasingly important focus for customers he says. ‘The fact is that IT is everywhere now – it’s your smartphone, it’s using your laptop at the airport.’ This new environment requires a new approach to security, because you can’t just keep the bad guys out with the IT equivalent of an armoured citadel, he says. ‘You know you are going to get hacked, but many people don’t recognise this. They still think that you can build the highest wall and that somehow makes them safe.’

Consequently the damage caused by many hacks is made worse by the inability of corporate IT systems to manage a prompt and effective response to such virtual intruders once they do penetrate the citadel. ‘Most of the tools available were designed 20 years ago and are too slow. IT security teams see the attacks, but IT operations tools and processes aren’t up to the job of responding fast enough.’

So 1E’s latest product, called Tachyon after the notional faster-than-light particles dreamed up by the writers of Star Trek, aims to speed up the business of keeping on top of network security. ‘We can check whether devices have, for example, a notpetya infection and we can do it ridiculously fast. We can ask a question of 1.5m devices and get the answer back in 10 seconds.’ 

The business was also a pioneer in the field of Green IT, says Karayi, having developed one of the first applications to switch off PCs automatically when they were not doing anything. ‘We have saved a total of over $2bn in energy costs for our customers over the past 12 or 13 years. I am really proud of that.’

British innovation

Despite the fact that over 80% of 1E’s revenues come from the US, Karayi lives in London and still has his HQ here. Why? ‘I love being in London and I feel a great affinity for the city,’ he says. ‘But also, innovation is something that we do really well in Britain.

‘There is something about the British mentality. I sit with our developers here and when we are writing new product, somehow we can create more here than we do in our other offices in India, Ireland or the States.’

Being privately owned and never having taken any outside investment in the business has also helped with innovation he says. ‘It has allowed us to make a lot of mistakes, and if you really want to innovate – I mean really innovate - then I can tell you that half your products are going to fail. Because they should.’

‘But with a VC – trying to convince them that that was OK, there would have been a few difficult conversations along the way.’

Karayi now plans to grow the business further, a move that may involve taking some outside investment for the first time, and also to pursue his philanthropic activities.

Because having experienced both ends of the spectrum of educational excellence has left him with a profound interest in helping other kids in difficult situations to get a better start. He sponsors schooling for the 40 or so children at the Manav Mandir Ashram orphanage in Delhi, and has also just set up a foundation called The Fair Chance Foundation to conduct research into why so few women enter tertiary education in India.

‘We are funding two PhD places [one each at Delhi and Warwick Universities] and it may grow further. If we can provide government with actionable research, it could result in something much bigger than I could dream of otherwise.’

His own unconventional start has also left him with a pretty unusual boast – because although the terrible south London school where it all started has now closed, he says, before it did he spotted its name on a list of the 20 worst schools in the country. ‘It was number 17. So that’s my claim to fame – I went to one of the worst schools in the country’.

Image credit: 1E

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