Getting good grades, earning admission to the best schools, and preparing for a career were the top priorities in the childhood home that young Murtaza Amil shared with his two older sisters and grandmother in Nagpur, India. His father, a radiologist, and mother, a schoolteacher, were both adamant that his time and energy stay directed toward school. “Especially from tenth to twelfth grade,” he remembers, “if we let our attention drift elsewhere, our parents would say, ‘Just focus on good grades! You need to get into a good school because that’s what’s required to pay the bills.’” So Murtaza threw himself into his studies with all his heart and both his hands.
Yet from an early age, he began showing interest in something else that could pay the bills—entrepreneurship. As a young child, he asked his mother to bake cupcakes for him to sell at school. “Of course she poo-poo’d that idea!” he laughs. “That doesn’t work in Indian culture, the son of a doctor selling cupcakes in school. She was worried about what people would say.” Putting his cupcake business dreams aside, Murtaza attended to his work, excelled in high school through his chosen course load of science and math classes, and in 1991 entered BITS Pilani, a prominent Indian university, to pursue a degree in chemical engineering.
It was there that he first began considering entrepreneurship in earnest. Along with several other students, Murtaza wanted to open a chemical factory in India. “One of my colleagues was a landlord in India and had acres and acres of land, where he grew rice,” he explains. “You can make rice oil from rice, so we partnered and set up a plan to produce it.”
Murtaza credits the school with a positive atmosphere that boosted his confidence in his ability to excel in business. “That environment actually shaped my thought process, giving me the feeling that I could actually dream big and achieve big.” He was still a year from graduation, but the plan moved along well until Murtaza went home for the summer, where his father had something else in mind. “He told me that it was his dream for his son to be educated in the U.S.,” Murtaza remembers. “He wanted me to go to the United States and earn my graduate degree there.” This time, it was rice oil dreams instead of cupcake dreams that he set aside, gaining admission to the University of Arizona—Tempe.
Although he’d been admitted to pursue chemical engineering, Murtaza found himself intrigued by the world of technology. “Those were the big years for IT—’96, ’97—and I said, you know what? This IT stuff seems very interesting, so I’ll try it,” says Murtaza. “I took a couple of courses there at Arizona, and I did very well. It seemed to come very easily to me.”
After a semester in that capacity, he transferred to George Mason University to be closer to his sister in Fairfax, Virginia. He graduated in 1998 with a Masters in Information Systems and an offer from Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) in their consulting division. Before accepting the offer, however, Murtaza again considered starting his own business. “Those entrepreneurial instincts were very much bubbling up,” he recalls of his feelings at the time. He had become close friends with a successful businessman, Atul Jain, who had launched an engineering and IT consulting company called TEOCO, and one day, he and four other students approached him with a proposal.
“We said we didn’t want to work for an existing company and instead wanted to start our own, but we didn’t know how to market ourselves,” Murtaza details. “We didn’t know how to get a project, so we proposed that he contract a project out to us.” Though Atul didn’t have a project at the time that could be contracted out as proposed, he generously offered them positions at TEOCO instead, but all five students already had lucrative job offers from big brands. “We decided that, if we were going to become employees, we might as well get those big names on our resumes,” Murtaza recalls. For the third time in his young life, entrepreneurship was put on hold.
Atul and Murtaza’s paths would cross again soon, however. In 2002, Atul acquired Respond.com, a technology company created in the late 1990s during the dot com bubble. “In those days, you searched for a business by picking up a huge volume of the Yellow Pages, which was published by large telecom companies like Verizon, AT&T, and Southwestern Bell,” Murtaza explains. “Respond.com was built as a way for these publishers to take this book and, leveraging their presence in the market, power the technology and create something online.” The two businessmen reconnected in 2003, and Murtaza joined Respond as an account manager and analyst.
Today, Respond has transformed significantly, and as its CEO, Murtaza has transformed along with it. “We aren’t so much a technology provider anymore,” he affirms. “We’re an online lead generation service that helps consumers find quality local business, and vice versa. We have advertisers, and we sell our leads to those advertisers.” In other words, small businesses and independent contractors from an array of fields—everything from the wedding industry to Lasik eye surgeons—use the site to acquire new clients. Murtaza and his team have developed a niche-specific series of sites that fall under the Respond umbrella, including leadingcontractors.com for those interested in home improvements, bridesandgrooms.com for those interested in weddings, and pestexpert.com for those in need of pest control.
Respond’s main focus today, however, is financial planners and advisors, who they serve through a site called wiseradvisor.com. “That site receives our undivided attention,” Murtaza avows. “Everything else exists by inertia. Because we’re very pragmatic about the way we run our business, we have to run business profitably, and we aren’t venture-funded anymore. We cannot take revenue off the table and we cannot neglect the margins, recognizing how important it is to take care of overheads and keep growing in our focus area of financial planning.”
The reasons for this focus are three-fold. “One is that there’s a huge unmet demand in this area,” Murtaza details. “One thing financial advisors struggle most with is client acquisition, and that’s exactly the problem our services solve. The second reason for this focus is that financial advisors have a willingness to pay for this kind of service—much higher than, say, a wedding photographer or a DJ. And lastly, in terms of competition, we felt we had a huge head start in this industry. Even though we’re small, we are the largest independent network of financial advisors, and we have the largest network and affiliates with which to bring in users and investors to generate leads and match those leads with financial advisors. So, competitively speaking, we are very well positioned.”
Murtaza and his team weren’t handed that position, however. When he first came on board, he worked his way up over the course of eight years, serving as Director of Sales, Director of Business Development, and Director of Marketing at various times. “I tried everything there,” Murtaza laughs. “Atul was comfortable throwing me any challenge that came his way.” In 2007, when Respond was still a business unit under TEOCO, Murtaza volunteered to go to India and help set up business offices there. “Within six to eight months of starting the India offices, I slowly moved away from Respond and assumed the role of a telecom associate for TEOCO only,” he recalls. “I was somewhat disassociated from Respond and remained in India for three years before returning to the U.S. in 2010 to pursue my MBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.” At that time, Murtaza rekindled his connection with Respond, which was now independent from TEOCO. In 2011, he was named its CEO, and in early 2012, he finished his MBA.
Today, at the helm of Respond, Murtaza’s entrepreneurial dreams are realized, but not satiated. Rather, assuming leadership of the $3 million company has only fueled his ambition to push the envelope further and pursue continued growth. When considering what he’ll want as a legacy at the end of a long career, he sees a bright future for the business- “When it comes to Respond, I want to continue taking it places,” he remarks. “I see a bright future for this business, and I want to make it a $100, $200, or even $500 million company. To me, that would be huge. I would feel that I’d made a big difference. When we have advisors say, ‘Yes, I built my practice using wiseradvisor.com,’ that gives me immense joy.”
But Murtaza is quick to point out that business is only one aspect of a meaningful, balanced life. His wife of 11 years and their children are a constant source of support and happiness for him, and when he talks about the future, success in his family and personal life are just as important as success at Respond. “Making sure my family is strong, happy, and healthy is extremely important to me,” he say. “When I look back on my life, I want to know that I spent quality time with my kids, brought them up right, and had a positive influence on them as people. And honestly, I have to say that my success over the past few years would have been impossible without my wife. She has made sacrifices, and that frees me up to be much more aggressive and entrepreneurial. In fact, for two years, I was doing full-time MBA coursework and full-time Respond work, which took a huge toll on my family in terms of the time I could spend with them. My wife has been very supportive of my effort and my dreams, and she has been an equal partner in the dreams that we have for our family.”
Along with the tremendous support of his wife and Atul, two other mentors made a profound difference in Murtaza’s professional journey. The first, Gonzalo Verdugo, was a partner at CSC. “He brought me into the management consulting practice at CSC in 1999,” Murtaza explains. “Usually you needed to have an MBA from a big name school to work in that capacity, but I didn’t, so I worked with Gonzalo on a project with USPS and he really liked me. I was able to impress him, so he introduced me to the strategic services arm of CSC, and that’s how I got into management consulting. That was one person who really believed in me and encouraged me throughout.”
Ed Susman, another partner and mentor at CSC, worked with Murtaza for two years on a project with JP Morgan Chase. “I learned so much from Ed on that project, from how you deal with clients, to how you write to clients, to how to tell a story,” he remembers. “So many of the things that I would say a polished professional needs to have, I learned from him. He’s another person who believed in me, encouraged me, and supported me.”
When asked how he’d advise young people entering the business world today, perhaps with entrepreneurial dreams of their own, Murtaza has three pieces of wisdom to impart. “One is, whatever you do, do it with all your heart and both your hands,” he urges. “It doesn’t matter what it is. If your first job requires you to paint the walls, do a phenomenal job painting the walls. Don’t even think about the fact that you didn’t go to college to paint the walls. You made the choice and you took the job, and because you’ve taken that job, put your heart into it. It will reflect in your output, no question.
“The second piece of advice,” he continues, “is that, as you grow, it’s very important to step outside of your comfort zone. If you want to grow, try different things, because that expands your comfort zone. Make that your habit. If you remain contented and just doing things that you’re already good at, you will not grow. Rather, you’ll become confined to the same set of skills. And finally, believe in people. As you evolve and deal with people more often, it becomes a two-way street. When you believe in people, they believe in you, and that is very powerful.”
If he ever had any doubt in the power of belief, it was dispelled by the greatest professional challenge of his career—going to India to set up TEOCO’s first office in the country. “It was a much smaller company then, probably between $20 and $25 million,” he reflects. “Nobody in India knew about TEOCO at that time, and I had to recruit a team from scratch. So I set up shop with my laptop, taking meetings with people, trying to communicate to them what I had to offer and trying to convince them why they should come to me. I couldn’t offer people 50 percent raises. In fact, I couldn’t even offer them 20 percent raises. The only thing I could give them was hope. All I could do was build a dream for them.” By using all his heart, both his hands, and an inner conviction that led him far, far outside the bounds of his comfort zone to build that dream, the construction was a success, and today, for Murtaza, success in business is the dream that came true.