“Vinny, you gotta get these books outta here by five or I’m gonna fire you.”
In 1971 there were over 4,000 Yellow Pages directories available in the United States, and they had begun arriving by the hundreds in the small reception area of the Commodore Corporation. Vinod Gupta, newly hired to conduct market research for the mobile home manufacturing company, had taken it upon himself to order every single one available and the stacks of thick books soon made it difficult to navigate through the room.
Gupta had been asked by his boss to put together a list of mobile home dealers in the country, but he found the resources available to him severely lacking. In a time well before the internet revolutionized the way we exchange information, Gupta recognized the value of it and sought to transform his company’s business with it. However, his boss didn’t think painstakingly pouring through thousands of phone book entries would be a valuable use of company time, and told Gupta that if he wanted to continue with the project he would have to do so on his off hours. Renting a moving truck, he transported all of the directories to his garage, where he began spending his nights and weekends methodically gathering the data himself.
Upon completing the list, Gupta presented it to Commodore Corporation and offered them exclusivity if they wished to purchase it from him for $9,000, but they declined. Instead, using just $100 out of his own pocket to pay for postage he mailed samples of the list to over 1,000 mobile home manufacturers to gauge interest and within a month had orders totalling $22,000 and $13,000 in direct check payments. Within a year he had made an $18,000 profit on revenues of $44,000, allowing him to move out of his garage and turn his side project into a company of its own.
Today, much of his struggle is past. Over the course of three decades, Gupta evolved his business with the information age, ensuring that it kept up with the rapid technological advancements that defined the era and building it from a garage full of phone books to an international publicly traded company with revenues upwards of $750 million. He retired as the company’s chief executive officer and chairman of the board in 2008 to spend more time pursuing his philanthropic projects, and has since also gone on to found two more companies: investment firm Everest Group and software as a service company Infofree. Gupta has said he believes in “learning, earning and returning,” building knowledge with whatever resources at your disposal, using that knowledge to fuel your business prospects, and then giving back and ensuring you are paying the opportunities you were afforded forward.
Five decades earlier, Gupta was working to turn his initial idea into a fully-formed company, Business Research Services. He hired two part-time employees to assist him in selling his mobile homes dealers list, but also recognized a bigger hole in the market than he previously realized. While larger companies had the ability to put considerable funds toward marketing, smaller businesses also had a need for access to reliable and comprehensive marketing lists that they weren’t able to produce themselves. He began to create new lists – first for those in similar industries such as motorcycles, bicycles, boats, cars, tractors, but soon moving on to other products and within a decade his company had the entire Yellow Pages in its database.
For the first two decades in business, Gupta’s company maintained steady growth as it added more information to its database and adapted to the rapidly changing environment as the internet and technology advanced. However, after making its debut on the New York Stock Exchange in 1992 Gupta shifted its strategy considerably, focusing on strategic acquisitions and expansion into new markets that were being created by the internet. Just four years later, its database included 113 million households, 11 million businesses across the United States and Canada and had added database marketing services. He also changed the company’s name to infoUSA, reflecting its solid roots in providing American businesses with quality marketing data.
Having built a business in America from the ground up, Gupta is truly an example of the American dream achieved. He was born in a small village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India, and grew up without modern conveniences such as electricity, phones, roads and even running water. Despite the circumstances, Gupta’s father impressed upon him the importance of education and upon graduating high school he was accepted into the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur where he studied agricultural engineering.
While attending IIT Kharagpur Gupta met Dr. Bill Splinter, a visiting professor from the University of Nebraska, who became something of a mentor for him. After earning his undergraduate degree, Gupta’s connection to the University of Nebraska saw him awarded a scholarship to attend the university’s agricultural engineering master’s program, and with just a single suitcase and less than $100 to his name Gupta moved to the land of opportunity. Faced for the first time with the feeling of limitless possibilities, Gupta went on to earn his MBA from the University of Nebraska as well, cementing Omaha as his new home and future.
Gupta has publicly pledged to donate the entirety of the wealth he has acquired to charity, and to date has contributed over $50 million to various philanthropic endeavors. While he has been known to contribute to any and every cause he can such as wildlife conservation, he has placed a focus on education and those that aid in broadening its accessibility. In his home village in India he put $1 million toward establishing the Shrimati Ram Rati Women’s Polytechnic (later updated to the Ramrati Institute of Technology), a women’s polytechnic school named after his mother. Now a part of the Ramrati Educational Complex, the campus encompasses 25 acres of land and has added numerous other facilities including a nursing school, women’s center, sports complex and library.
To IIT Kharagpur Gupta donated $2 million to found the Vinod Gupta School of Management, allowing the university to offer an MBA program to engineering graduates and also helped establish the Rajiv Ghandi School of Intellectual Property Law. Together, these schools work toward spurring innovation and entrepreneurship in the country, and the IIT Kharagpur Foundation has highlighted Gupta as one of its distinguished alumni as a result. He has also put another $2 million toward establishing a curriculum for small business management at the University of Nebraska and donated $500,000 to set up a scholarship fund for minority students who wish to enter its science and engineering schools.
From a humble beginning, to a garage full of phone books, to a multimillion dollar corporation to philanthropic achievements, rather than turning yellow lemons into lemonade Gupta has turned yellow paper into success.