AI/ML is not Sexy

One would think that the new sexy in the startup capital of the world is self-driving cars, AI/ML… I got news for you! AI/ML (esp. Machine Learning) is not listed in Gartner’s hype cycle for 2018.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hype-Cycle-General.png

This was corroborated on my recent trip to the valley and the US east coast, where I met several investors, founders, corp dev and other partners of the startup community. It was evident that the AI/ML hype which peaked in 2016 & 2017 is no longer considered a buzzword. It is assumed to be table stakes. What you do with AI/ML is something everyone is willing to listen to. Using AI/ML to solve a high-value B2B SaaS problem is Sexy! (Gartner trends for 2018).

As the hype with AI/ML settles down, B2B startups across the globe are discovering the realities of working the AI/ML shifts for SaaS. Many AI tools & frameworks in the tech stack are still evolving and early pioneers are discovering constraints in the stack and creatively building workarounds as they build their products.

Many entrepreneurs are watching from the sidelines the unfolding of the AI/ML hype, wondering on many valid questions like these (and more):

Q: Do I have to stop what we are building and jump onto the AI bandwagon? No.
Q: Are the AI/ML resources mature & stable to build better value products? No, they are still evolving.
Q: Do I need expensive investments in constrained resources? No, not until you have a high-value problem to solve.

B2B SaaS startups go through 2 key struggles. How to find market-fit and survive? And how to stay relevant and grow. And if you don’t evolve or reinvent as the market factors change, there are high chances for an upstart to come by and disrupt you. The iSPIRT entrepreneur playbooks look to help entrepreneurs get clarity on such queries and more. Our goal is to help our startups navigate such market shifts, stay relevant and grow. Our mini roundtables Playing with AI/ML are focused on WhyAI for SaaS discussions in multiple cities. If you or a startup you know may benefit do register

The MiniRT Agenda

Seeding & creating an active discussion on Why AI/ML? What is the higher order value being created? How to identify the value & opportunities to leverage AI? How to get started with an AI playground (if not already running)? How to think of data needs for AI/ML investments, How to address the impact on Product & Business… Insights from these sessions are meant to help refine our approach & readiness to leverage AI/ML for building higher order value products. And in doing so building a vibrant community focused around navigating this shift.

Upcoming PlaybookRTs on AI/ML

6-Oct (Chennai) 10 am – 1 pm – MiniRoundTable on WhyAI for B2B SaaS – Shrikanth Jagannathan, PipeCandy Inc
18-Oct (Bangalore) 6 pm – 8 pm MiniRoundTable with Dr Viral Shah on AI/ML Tools & discuss your ML/DeepLearning challenges
27-Oct (Delhi/Gurgaon) 2 pm – 6 pmMiniRoundTable on WhyAI for B2B SaaS, Adarsh Natarajan, CEO & Founder – Aindra Systems
TBD (Bangalore)MiniRoundTable on WhyAI for B2B SaaS, (based on registered interest)
TBD (Mumbai)MiniRoundTable on WhyAI for B2B SaaS, (based on registered interest)

The AI+SaaS game has just begun and it is the right time for our hungry entrepreneurs to Aspire for the Gold, on a reasonable level playing field.

Click to Register for the AI/ML Playbooks Track.

Please note: All iSPIRT playbooks are pro-bono, closed room, founder-level, invite-only sessions. The only thing we require is a strong commitment to attend all sessions completely and to come prepared, to be open to learning & unlearning, and to share your context within a trusted environment. All key learnings are public goods & the sessions are governed by the Chatham House Rule.

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hype-Cycle-General.png

Interesting Reads

The slow, light touch of AI in Indian Saas

Why the SC ruling on ‘Private Players’ use of Aadhaar doesn’t say what you think it does

On behalf of iSPIRT, Sanjay Jain recently published an opinion piece regarding the recent supreme court judgement on the validity of Aadhaar. In there, we stated that section 57 had been struck down, but that should still allow some usage of Aadhaar by the private sector. iSPIRT received feedback that this reading may have been incorrect and that private sector usage would not be allowed, even on a voluntary basis. So, we dug deeper, and analyzed the judgement once again, this time trying to disprove Sanjay’s earlier statement. So, here is an update:

Section 57 of the Aadhaar act has NOT been struck down!

Given the length of the judgement, our first reading – much like everyone else’s was driven by the judge’s statement and confirmed by quickly parsing the lengthy judgement. But in this careful reanalysis, we reread the majority judgement at leisure and drilled down into the language of the operative parts around Section 57. Where ambiguities still remain, we relied on the discussions leading up to the operative conclusions. Further, to recheck our conclusions, we look at some of the other operative clauses not related to Section 57. We tested our inference against everything else that has been said and we looked for inconsistencies in our reasoning.

Having done this, we are confident in our assertion that the judges did not mean to completely blockade the use of Aadhaar by private parties, but merely enforce better guardrails for the protection of user privacy. Let’s begin!

Revisiting Section 57

Here is the original text of section 57 of the Aadhaar Act

Nothing contained in this Act shall prevent the use of Aadhaar number for establishing the identity of an individual for any purpose a purpose backed by law, whether by the State or any body corporate or person, pursuant to any law, for the time being in force, or any contract to this effect:

Provided that the use of Aadhaar number under this section shall be subject to the procedure and obligations under section 8 and Chapter VI.

Now, let us simply read through the operating part of the order with reference to Section 57, ie. on page 560. This is a part of paragraph 447 (4) (h). The judges broke this into 3 sections, and mandated changes:

  1. ‘for any purpose’ to be read down to a purpose backed by law.
  2. ‘any contract’ is not permissible.
  3. ‘any body corporate or person’ – this part is struck down.

Applying these changes to the section, we get:

Nothing contained in this Act shall prevent the use of Aadhaar number for establishing the identity of an individual for any purpose a purpose backed by law, whether by the State or any body corporate or person, pursuant to any law, for the time being in force, or any contract to this effect:

Provided that the use of Aadhaar number under this section shall be subject to the procedure and obligations under section 8 and Chapter VI.

Cleaning this up, we get:

Nothing contained in this Act shall prevent the use of Aadhaar number for establishing the identity of an individual pursuant to any law, for the time being in force:

Provided that the use of Aadhaar number under this section shall be subject to the procedure and obligations under section 8 and Chapter VI.

It is our opinion that this judgement does not completely invalidate the use of Aadhaar by private players, but rather, specifically strikes down the use for “any purpose [..] by any body corporate or person [..] (under force of) any contract”. That is, it requires the use of Aadhaar be purpose-limited, legally-backed (to give user rights & protections over their data) and privacy-protecting.

As an exercise, we took the most conservative interpretation – “all private use is struck down in any form whatsoever” – and reread the entire judgement to look for clues that support this conservative view.

Instead, we found that such an extreme view is inconsistent with multiple other statements made by the judges. As an example, earlier discussions of Section 57 in the order (paragraphs 355 to 367). The conclusion there – paragraph 367 states:

The respondents may be right in their explanation that it is only an enabling provision which entitles Aadhaar number holder to take the help of Aadhaar for the purpose of establishing his/her identity. If such a person voluntary wants to offer Aadhaar card as a proof of his/her identity, there may not be a problem.

Some pointed out that this is simply a discussion and not an operative clause of the judgement. But even in the operative clauses where the linking of Aadhaar numbers with bank accounts and telecom companies is discussed, no reference was made to Section 57 and the use of Aadhaar by private banks and telcos.

The court could have simply struck down the linking specifically because most banks and telcos are private companies. Instead, they applied their mind to the orders which directed the linking as mandatory. This further points to the idea that the court does not rule out the use of Aadhaar by private players, it simply provides stricter specifications on when and how to use it.

What private players should do today

In our previous post, we had advised private companies to relook at their use of Aadhaar, and ensure that they provide choice to all users, so that they can use an appropriate identity, and also build in better exception handling procedures for all kinds of failures (including biometric failures).

Now, in addition to our previous advice, we would like to expand the advice to ask that each company look at how their specific use case draws from the respective acts, rules, regulations and procedural guidelines to ensure that these meet the tests used by this judgement. That is, they contain adequate justification and sufficient protections for the privacy of their users.

For instance, banks have been using Aadhaar eKyc to open a bank account, Aadhaar authentication to allow operation of the bank accounts, and using the Aadhaar number as a payment address to receive DBT benefits. Each of these will have to be looked at how they derive from the RBI Act and the regulations that enable these use cases.

These reviews will benefit from the following paragraphs in the judgement.

The judgement confirmed that the data collected by Aadhaar is minimal and is required to establish one’s identity.

Paragraph 193 (and repeated in other paras):

Demographic information, both mandatory and optional, and photographs does not raise a reasonable expectation of privacy under Article 21 unless under special circumstances such as juveniles in conflict of law or a rape victim’s identity. Today, all global ID cards contain photographs for identification alongwith address, date of birth, gender etc. The demographic information is readily provided by individuals globally for disclosing identity while relating with others and while seeking benefits whether provided by government or by private entities, be it registration for citizenship, elections, passports, marriage or enrolment in educational institutions …

The judgement has a lot to say in terms of what the privacy tests should be, but we would like to highlight two of those paragraphs here.

Paragraph 260:

Before we proceed to analyse the respective submissions, it has also to be kept in mind that all matters pertaining to an individual do not qualify as being an inherent part of right to privacy. Only those matters over which there would be a reasonable expectation of privacy are protected by Article 21…

Paragraph 289:

‘Reasonable Expectation’ involves two aspects. First, the individual or individuals claiming a right to privacy must establish that their claim involves a concern about some harm likely to be inflicted upon them on account of the alleged act. This concern ‘should be real and not imaginary or speculative’. Secondly, ‘the concern should not be flimsy or trivial’. It should be a reasonable concern…

Hence, the privacy risk in these use cases must be evaluated in terms of the data in the use case itself, as well as in relation to biometrics, and the Aadhaar number in the context of the user’s expectations, and real risks. Businesses must evaluate their products, and services – particularly those which use Aadhaar for privacy risks. It is helpful that the UIDAI has provided multiple means of mitigating risks, in the form of Registered Devices, Virtual Ids, Tokenization, QR Codes on eAadhaar, etc. which must be used for this purpose.

What private players should do tomorrow

In the future, the data protection bill will require a data protection impact assessment before deploying large scale systems. It is useful for businesses to bring in privacy and data protection assessments early in their development processes since it will help them better protect their users, and reduce potential liability.

This is a useful model, and we would hope that, in light of the Supreme Court judgement, the Government will introduce a similar privacy impact review, and provide a mechanism to regulate the use of Aadhaar for those use cases, where there are adequate controls to protect the privacy of the users and to prevent privacy harms. Use cases, and an audit/enforcement mechanism matter more than whether the entity is the state, a public sector organization, or a private sector organization.

Note: This is in continuation of Sanjay Jain’s previous op-ed in the Economic Times which is available here and same version on the iSPIRT blog here.

The writer is currently Partner, Bharat Innovation Fund, and Chief Innovation Officer at the Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship, IIM Ahmedabad. As a volunteer at iSPIRT, he helped define many of the APIs of the India Stack.  He was the Chief Product Manager of UIDAI till 2012

(Disclaimer: This is not legal advice)

Understanding iSPIRT’s Entrepreneur Connect

There is confusion about how iSPIRT engages with entrepreneurs. This post explains to our engagement model so that the expectations are clear. iSPIRT’s mission is to make India into a Product Nation. iSPIRT believes that startups are a critical catalyst in this mission. In-line with the mission, we help entrepreneurs navigate market and mindset shifts so that some of them can become trailblazers and category leaders.

Market Shifts

Some years back global mid-market business applications, delivered as SaaS, had to deal with the ubiquity of mobile. This shift upended the SaaS industry. Now, another such market shift is underway in global SaaS – with AI/ML being one factor in this evolution.

Similar shifts are happening in the India market too. UPI is shaking up the old payments market. JIO’s cheap bandwidth is shifting the digital entertainment landscape. And, India Stack is opening up Bharat (India-2) to digital financial products.

At iSPIRT, we try to help market players navigate these shifts through Bootcamps, Teardowns, Roundtables, and Cohorts (BTRC).

We know that reading market shifts isn’t easy. Like stock market bubbles, market shifts are fully clear only in hindsight. In the middle, there is an open question whether this is a valid market shift or not (similar to whether the stock market is in a bubble or not). There are strong opinions on both sides till the singularity moment happens. The singularity moment is usually someone going bust by failing to see the shift (e.g. Chillr going bust due to UPI) or becoming a trailblazer by leveraging the shift (e.g. PhonePe’s meteoric rise).

Startups are made or unmade on their bets on market shifts. Bill Gates’ epiphany that browser was a big market shift saved Microsoft. Netflix is what it is today on account of its proactive shift from ground to cloud. Closer home, Zoho has constantly reinvented itself.

Founders have a responsibility to catch the shifts. At iSPIRT, we have a strong opinion on some market shifts and work with the founders who embrace these shifts.

Creating Trailblazers through Winning Implementations

We are now tieing our BTRC work to specific market-shifts and mindset-shifts. We will only work with those startups that have a conviction about these market/mindset-shifts (i.e., they are not on the fence), are hungry (and are willing to exploit the shift to get ahead) and can apply what they have learned from iSPIRT Mavens to make better products.

Another change is that we will work with young or old, big or small startups. In the past, we worked with only startups in the “happy-confused” stage.

We are making these changes to improve outcomes. Over the last four years, our BTRC engagements have generated very high NPS (Net Promoter Scores) but many of our startups continue to struggle with their growth ceilings, be it an ARR threshold of $1M, $5M, $10M… or whether it is a scalable yet repeatable product-market fit.

What hasn’t changed is our bias for working with a few startups instead of many. Right from the beginning, iSPIRT’s Playbooks Pillar has been about making a deep impact on a few startups rather than a shallow impact on many. For instance, our first PNGrowth had 186 startups. They had been selected from 600+ that applied. In the end, we concluded that we needed even better curation. So, our PNGrowth#2 had only 50 startups.

The other thing that hasn’t changed is we remain blind to whether the startup is VC funded or bootstrapped. All we are looking for are startups that have the conviction about the market/mindset-shift, the hunger to make a difference and the inner capacity to apply what you learn. We want them to be trailblazers in the ecosystem.

Supported Market/Mindset Shifts

Presently we support 10 market/mindset-shifts. These are:

  1. AI/ML Shift in SaaS – Adapt AI into your SaaS products and business models to create meaningful differentiation and compete on a global level playing field.

  2. Shift to Platform Products – Develop and leverage internal platforms to power a product bouquet. Building enterprise-grade products on a common base at fractional cost allows for a defensible strategy against market shifts or expanding market segments.

  3. Engaging Potential Strategic Partners (PSP) – PSPs are critical for scale and pitching to them is very different from pitching to customers and investors. Additionally, PSPs also offer an opportunity to co-create a growth path to future products & investments.

  4. Flow-based lending – Going after the untapped “largest lending opportunity in the world”.

  5. Bill payments – What credit and corporate cards were to West, bill payments will be to India due to Bharat Bill Pay System (BBPS).

  6. UPI 2.0 – Mass-market payments and new-age collections.

  7. Mutual Fund democratization – Build products and platforms that bring informal savings into the formal sector.

  8. From License Raj to Permissions Artefact for Drones – Platform approach to provisioning airspace from the government.

  9. Microinsurance for Bharat – Build products and platforms that reimagine Agri insurance on the back of India Stack and upcoming Digital Sky drone policy.

  10. Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture (DEPA) – with usage in financial, healthcare and telecom sectors.

This is a fluid list. There will be additions and deletions over time.

Keep in mind that we are trying to replicate for all these market/mindset-shifts what we managed to do for Desk Marketing and Selling (DMS). We focussed on DMS in early 2014 thanks to Mavens like Suresh Sambandam (KissFlow), Girish Mathrubootham (Freshworks), and Krish Subramaniam (Chargebee). Now DMS has gone mainstream and many sources of help are available to the founders.

Seeking Wave#2 Partners

The DMS success has been important for iSPIRT. It has given us the confidence that our BTRC work can meaningfully help startups navigate the market/mindset-shifts. We have also learned that the market/mindset-shift happens in two waves. Wave#1 touches a few early adopters. If one or more of them create winning implementations to become trailblazers, then the rest of the ecosystem jumps in. This is Wave#2. Majority of our startups embrace the market-shift in Wave#2.

iSPIRT’s model is geared to help only Wave#1 players. We falter when it comes to supporting Wave#2 folks. Our volunteer model works best with cutting-edge stuff and small cohorts.

Accelerators and commercial players are better positioned to serve the hundreds of startups embracing the market/mindset-shift in Wave#2. Together, Wave#1 and Wave#2, can produce great outcomes like the thriving AI ecosystem in Toronto.

To ensure that Wave#2 goes well, we have decided to include potential Wave#2 helpers (e.g., Accelerators, VCs, boutique advisory firms and other ecosystem builders) in our Wave#1 work (on a, needless to say, free basis). Some of these BTRC Scale Partners have been identified. If you see yourself as a Wave#2 helper who would like to get involved in our Wave#1 work, please reach out to us.

Best Adopters

As many of you know, iSPIRT isn’t an accelerator (like TLabs), a community (like Headstart), a coworking space (like THub) or a trade body. We are a think-and-do-tank that builds playbooks, societal platforms, policies, and markets. Market players like startups use these public goods to offer best solutions to the market.

If we are missing out on helping you, please let us know by filling out this form. You can also reach out to one of our volunteers here:

Chintan Mehta: AI shift in SaaS, Shift to Platform Products, Engaging PSPs

Praveen Hari: Flow-based lending

Jaishankar AL: Bill payments

Tanuj Bhojwani: Permissions Artefact for Drones

Nikhil Kumar: UPI2.0, MF democratization, Microinsurance for Bharat

Siddharth Shetty: Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture (DEPA)

Meghana Reddyreddy: Wave#2 Partners

We are always looking for high-quality volunteers. In case you’re interested in volunteering, please reach out to one of the existing volunteers or write to us at [email protected]

Are you ready to Jump with AI/ML? [Updated Session Dates]

[Update 6-Apr] New April Session Dates – Symposium RT is being scheduled on Saturdays for Bangalore & Chennai (21st & 28th April). 

Playbooks for Electrifying SaaS and more.

This is what we call the fourth industrial revolution…And companies are really transforming and bringing all these new technologies to connect with their customers in new ways.
Dreamforce 2017 Keynotes, Marc Benioff.

There is no doubt that Artificial Intelligence (AI), is one of the recent “tectonic” market shifts, creating a change in landscape, market, and opportunity. AI and  Machine Learning (ML), now in its eternal spring, has a deep impact on SaaS evolution. While the incumbent companies like Salesforce, Zendesk, Workday, have all invested heavily in AI, also global challengers across many verticals from Sales, BPM, CRM… to Security are focused on building higher order efficiencies and automation through AI/ML.

Over the last few years, our Indian SaaS entrepreneurs trumped the global SaaS growth by leveraging mobile first as there was no baggage of desktop, reduced sales & onboarding cost by perfecting the art of Inside Sales & Inbound Marketing, and efficient after sales support & service by leveraging remote success representatives. Our SaaS Mavens helped disseminate these leverages by sharing the best practices & modeling internal flywheels & experimentations. Many SaaS entrepreneurs successfully assimilated and got a significant boost in their growth journey. These levers are now basic table stakes for most SaaS startups.

AI has no breakthrough success stories, but it is helping create a level playing field – especially for our Indian entrepreneurs – to compete with global players and incumbents alikeStartups willing to make the jump, adapt AI into their products & business models to create meaningful differentiation, will experience a strong wind in their sails to leapfrog over the players who don’t.

Our entrepreneurs have a rare opportunity to be early adopters & global trailblazers. 

To take advantage of this our entrepreneurs ask very valid questions.

Q. Why & How should we entrepreneurs navigate this AI market shift? 
Q. How should we, given that we are untrained in AI, grapple with the 360° impact of AI on product, business, and technology?
Q. What AI leverage can we develop without requiring expensive investments for constrained resources? 

How do we enable our companies to create new AI playgrounds to analyze, surface, validate and develop higher order customer values & efficiencies?

AI Playbooks

Since adapting to the AI “tectonic” shift requires a new paradigm of thinking, we have launched a multi-step playbooks track focused on Playing with AI/ML for Indian entrepreneurs. In line with iSPIRT’s mission, our playbooks purpose is to help market players navigate market shifts. The goal is to bring the practitioner knowledge from AI Mavens AI-first entrepreneurs who are further ahead in their AI journey – to the AI-hungry startups and help them perfect the model of working with AI, get traction towards a meaningful AI-enhanced value, and become trailblazers for the community. If you are an AI-hungry startup who has either taken the plunge with AI/ML but early in your journey, or are actively looking to leverage AI/ML for your current products, then following the stepped approach below may help:

Step 1 – Attend an AI/ML Symposium RT – Getting prepared with Why AI and How AI. In our first kickoff session on 10-Mar, we had great discussions on AI data maturity, what can drive your AI approach, and more with our AI Mavens and ten startups (read more).

Step 2 – A cohort of startups from step 1 will be taken through multiple AI/ML Playbook RT for How AI – deep dives on topics to help with structuring an internal AI playground, competency with data product management, product positioning & branding, business model shifts, and more.
These playbook RTs will help the startups carve out a lean playground for rapid experimentation and analysis, with a 3-4 person team of a data PM, & engineers. The team, actively lead by the founder, runs regular sprints (business/product/engineering sprints) of experimentation and validation, and have review touchpoints at intervals with AI-Mavens and the cohort as a running group.
There is also an optional Tech Training Lab to build internal ML competency with a multi-day workshop with Julia experts.

Four startups have been initially selected for the cohort for the step 2 AI playbook RTs (Acebot, FusionCharts, InstaSafe & LegalDesk).

SaaSx5 – June 2018

We are working to set up the 5th version of our marquee SaaSx to engage with the larger SaaS startup community. We will definitely focus on the impact of AI/ML on SaaS and have workshops based on our momentum of the playbooks track on various topics above. Date & details to be announced shortly.

The AI+SaaS game has just begun and it is the right time for our hungry entrepreneurs to Aspire for the Gold, on a reasonable level playing field.

Click to Nominate or Register a startup for the AI/ML Playbooks Track.

Dates & Venue

AI/ML Symposium RT #1 – 10th Mar (Sat) 2p – 5p Done (read more)
AI/ML Symposium RT #2 – 21st Apr (Sat) 11a – 2p @ Bangalore TBD
AI/ML Symposium RT #3– 28th Apr (Sat) 10a – 1p @ Chennai TBD

May the force be with you!

* All iSPIRT playbooks are pro-bono, closed room, founder-level, invite-only sessions. The only thing we require is a strong commitment to attend all sessions completely, to come prepared, to be open to learning & unlearning, and to share your context within a trusted environment. All key learnings are public goods & the sessions are governed by the Chatham House Rule.

Featured image modified from source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jedimentat/7557276684

Playing with the new Electricity – AI/ML Playbook Sessions [March Update]

[Update 29-Mar] New April Session Dates – Symposium RT is being scheduled for Bangalore & Chennai (21st & 28th April). 

“Tectonic” market shifts happen every few years creating a change in landscape, market and opportunity. The most recent “tectonic” shift is the emergence of the Artificial Intelligence era. In just the same way electrification in the early 1900s transformed major industries globally, AI, Machine Learning & Deep Learning are poised to transform a multitude of industries, services & products.

It took 100 years from the discovery of electrical generator to electrification of industries. AI is doing this in a span of 70 years (from the time of the Turing Test).

AI/ML has gone through many winters and is now in its eternal spring. It portents a new framework for startups to navigate and evolve from an internet era startup into an AI era startup.


Every new era shift begins with a lot of smoke and hype before it is well understood. iSPIRT ProductNation & Julia are launching a set of AI/ML playbook roundtable & workshop sessions to dispel the hype around AI, and help bring a pragmatic mindset & process change necessary for product startups to leverage AI/ML. We believe AI is not just a technology shift. It is a combination of product, business, and technology shift. Adapting to it requires a new paradigm of thinking to build a viable value strategy. This needs to be done mindfully and in context of the value you offer to the customer, do not rush in with the AI hype.

These multi-step playbooks are for all categories of startups regardless whether they are AI-First or SaaS, and MarTech, FinTech, HealthTech or any other <Domain>Tech category, startups who are looking to deliver a higher order value to their customers by leveraging and applying AI models with their data.

Since AI/ML is still in its early years there aren’t any proven success playbooks. Hence these deep sessions will bring together AI experts, AI Mavens (entrepreneurs who are more ahead in their AI journey), iSPIRT Mavens, and selected startups, to discuss & share their insights, challenges & learnings on the mindset shifts outlined above and best practices adopted. The 2-step playbook roundtable sessions focused on founders (+1 typically CXO) and a hands-on lab workshop are a sequence of:

    • AI/ML Symposium RT (step 1) – An invite-only 3 hour mini-symposium playbook with AI/ML experts, first mover AI leaders & Mavens from our startup community and 10-15 invited startups, focusing on Why AI/ML? What was the higher order value being created? How to identify the opportunities to leverage AI? What do you need to get started with AI (if not already running)? Data needs for AI/ML investments… The shared awareness created in this session, combined with the commitment by startups to articulate their AI/ML opportunity, and detail their approach will lead to the next AI/ML roundtable.
    • AI/ML Playbook RT (step 2) – Startups at similar AI readiness from the Symposium will be invited for a 5-hour deep-dive roundtable discussion on the AI/ML challenges in the context of the startup domain, effectively going through their AI/ML readiness & approach (a review & teardown). Topics would emerge from the Symposium RT and could cover data collection & modeling strategy, AI transformation algorithms, Business model innovation, Success metrics… This session is restricted to 5-6 startups (having similar AI needs) per roundtable and an AI Maven to facilitate the topics & discussion. Possible outcomes for each startup would be to develop an action plan/checklist for next few months of execution. Additionally, startups can identify a tiger tech team to go to the AI/ML Training Lab to get traction for their checklist…
    • AI/ML Training Lab with Julia Sandbox (optional) – A 3+ day workshop intended for the 3-4 person tiger tech teams (CTO, Engg, Data guy, PM…) from each startup. The workshop will help focus on building competency, getting traction & executing implementations related to the checklist developed at the roundtable.

For the first set of these playbooks, we are inviting nominations/applications for startup founders (+CXOs) who are either directly focusing on AI-based opportunity or have started integrating AI/ML as a core strategy for their product growth/success. Please provide your nomination for startups you believe should be part of the first series of the AI/ML playbooks. If you are a startup and interested to be part of this please register below. On final approval, an invite confirmation will be sent via email.

Please submit your nominations here. A registration link will be sent to your nominee.

Dates & Venue for the first of the series:

AI/ML Symposium RT #1 – 10th Mar (Sat) 2p – 5p Done
AI/ML Symposium RT #2 – 21st Apr (Sat) 11a – 2p @ Bangalore TBD
AI/ML Symposium RT #328th Apr (Sat) 10a – 1p @ Chennai TBD
AI/ML Playbook RTApr-TBD (Sat) 11a – 5pm @ Bangalore TBD
AI/ML Training Lab w/ JuliaApr-TBD @ TBD (Bangalore)

While the sessions are in Chennai/Bangalore, we believe this topic is of emergent interest to startups across the country and would invite all to register.

AI Mavens

Ashwin Ramasamy – PipeCandy
Manish Singhal – pi Ventures
Nishith Rastogi – Locus.sh
Shrikanth Jagannathan – PipeCandy

Cost

All iSPIRT roundtables are pro-bono (read below for how that works)

This series of playbooks is being setup by active support from our Mavens & Volunteers – Ankit Singh, Deepak Vinchhi, Karthik KS, Praveen Hari, Ravindra Krishnappa, Sandeep Todi.

P.S. Some great material for pre-reading

I strongly recommend all to go through many of these.

* All iSPIRT playbooks are pro-bono, closed room, founder-level, invite-only sessions. The only thing we require is a strong commitment to attend all sessions completely and to come prepared, to be open to learning & unlearning, and to share your context within a trusted environment. All key learnings are public goods & the sessions are governed by the Chatham House Rule.

* The Julia team is on a social mission to train a large number of people in India to develop grassroot skills and competency with AI & ML.

+Feature image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/gleonhard/34046647175/

3 Learnings From a Fintech SaaS Offering For Indian SMEs

One of our key clients using SahiGST suddenly placed a lead on our website. After seeing a few of these leads, I pinged my sales lead and asked him, are they looking for an alternative software? Didn’t they buy a bigger package from us just a few days back? My sales lead calmly replies, ‘oh those leads’. That must be the new users from this company trying to login to the software via the home page lead capture form.

The above situation should give you a hint of what it is like to offer a SaaS solution to Indian businesses.

Over the past one year, building a tax compliance software from scratch and selling it to Indian SMEs has been a great learning curve. Some of these learnings was very curious and insightful for us coming from a media / B2C background. There are several learnings that we got from this experience. Here are a few that may be repeatable for a lot of you.

On Sales:

Even if your service is fully delivered over the internet, it would be foolhardy to expect Indian businesses to complete the buying and on-boarding by themselves. Less than 10% of our customers were closed without a face to face meeting. In most cases we did online demos and product walk through 1-1 but conversions were low. Most sales came after a visit by one of our channel partners or sales executives. One of our channel partners couldn’t demo the technicalities of the software, but closed sales on the trust of his relationship with the client and managed by just showing a demo video of the product!

There could be several reasons why a in-person meeting is needed for closing sales with Indian businesses. Online demoes aren’t as easy to pull off for a product where there are a lot of questions from the customer and internet connectivity for a screen share isn’t always reliable. Add to that the customer set not being very savvy and comfortable with a Google Hangout or Skype. At the same time the trust that is generated when the sales guy says ‘main hoo na’ is unparalleled. What is also unparalleled is the amount of support calls the sales folks get in coming months 🙂

Phone Support:

For a digital entrepreneur it is hard to believe that the customer demands phone support six days a week from 10AM to 8PM even before seeing your product! Good phone support is an emotional connect and while software UX matters, without phone support we found that in our industry adoption would be zilch.

A well trained army of phone support agents was built before launch and we braced ourselves for the deluge of calls that may come our way. On a bad day (tax filing due date) we saw over 40% of our customer base calling us for support!

We were compelled to take a PRI line from Airtel and set up a physical call centre at our office. The same was preferred over cloud systems because of the voice clarity landlines give. We even got high quality Plantronics headsets for each of our support execs.

A lot of my startup friends debate this point and argue that we should work without phone support to change consumer habit. That may work, but in our experience no tax filing software in India survives without it. There are stories of mid size CA firms buying multiple softwares just to have backup options w.r.t. phone support availability. The saying is ‘jiska support phone uthaye, usko use kar le na’.

Pricing Is Key, ARPU would be low

Having run a high margin & content heavy venture before starting SahiGST, adapting to low ARPU and low cost operations was new for us. Our customers are more willing to pay for services (training etc) than the product. We kept our costs low and could keep our end pricing low as a result. Some services revenues tricked in but our focus remained on the product.

The saving grace is that once the Indian business consumer is used to a product, it is hard for them and your competitors to change that habit (eg: Tally)! So we expect the Life Time Value of our users to be very high.

As a policy we always kept our pricing consistent for all clients and did not discount for anyone. This built a reputation in the market and we could proudly tell our customer, this is the best price. Magic happens when the customer sees a reasonable price and knows that no one else gets it below that price!

So how has your SaaS experience in India been?

Leveraging GST data for Flow based Lending

Access to formal credit continues to be one of the largest challenges faced by MSMEs in India due to lack of verifiable data about their business.Digital payments data combined with GST data has the potential to unlock millions of SMEs & bring them into the formal system. India is going through a Cambrian explosion of data usage. It is estimated that the monthly data consumption on every smartphone in India is estimated to grow nearly five times from 3.9 GB in 2017 to 18 GB by 2023 as per a report by Swedish telecom gear maker Ericsson.

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Picture Source: Digital Desh

As businesses and their processes get digitized, it provides us a unique opportunity to re-imagine credit products for MSMEs like never before.

In order to move from traditional Asset-based lending to Data based lending it is important to make the following design considerations:

  • Underwriting based on Data – Assess creditworthiness in real time based on the consented data provided by the user
  • Low-Value – Bringing down the cost of processing a loan using digital platforms like eKYC, eSign & UPI enables one to process sachet sized loans
  • Smaller Tenures – Offer small tenures to reduce risk and thereby build better credit history of a customer
  • Customised Loan Offers – In the old world, loan products were designed to be one size fits all; With data & better underwriting, create a “loan offer on the fly” for a borrower based on his need

Getting started with GST Data Based Lending – Basics

  • Over 8M+ businesses in India will file GST returns
  • Every invoice in the GSTN system is verified by the counterparty
  • GST returns are digitally signed and this data can be accessed through consent of a small business

To access this data, you need the understand the three types of GST APIs:

  • Authentication – Allows a taxpayer to login into his GST account from any application
  • Returns – Allows a taxpayer to file his returns from any application
  • Ledger – Allows a taxpayer to view & share his tax data with any application

You can access the GSTN Sandbox & APIs here: bit.ly/GSTAPIs

If you want more insights, do join the GSTN Discussion Forum here: bit.ly/GSTgroup

The GSTN Tech Ecosystem

Goods and Service Tax Network is a section 8 company set up to provide common and shared IT infrastructure and services to the Central and State Governments, Tax Payers and other stakeholders for the implementation of the Goods & Services Tax (GST).

In this context, it is important to understand the below two roles of GSTN:

  1. Direct portal for taxpayers – https://services.gst.gov.in/services/login
  2. Expose APIs thru GSPs (GST Suvidha Provider) – http://www.gstn.org/gsp-list/

GST Introduction (1)

GST Suvidha Provider (GSP) – Companies which provide GST API Gateway as a service to application service providers; They are appointed by the GSTN and list of the GSPs can be accessed here:http://www.gstn.org/gsp-list/

ASPs – Companies which provide the user interface for business to file or fetch their returns from the GSTN

Naturally, ASPs are a great fit as distribution partners for lending as they own and control the end user experience of small businesses. Some of the examples are:

Accounting Software Providers

    • They help small business manage their accounting, inventory & even payroll;
    • They have rich data sets about the small business including their GST returns Eg: Tally (Desktop), Zoho/Cleartax/Profitbooks (Cloud-based)

Tax Filing Software Providers

    • These companies help business who use excel/manual billing/custom software to prepare their GST return & file it every month;
    • One of the key stakeholders here is the accountant who essentially is the business advisor for an SMB and tapping into them as an influencer channel is a great opportunity Eg: Cleartax, SahiGST etc.

Supply Chain Automation Companies:

    • Today many FMCGs and Large manufacturing companies are using software to track their sales/inventory in their supply chain; For e.g: Asian Paints, Tata Steel, ITC etc.
    • As these companies enable a large of wholesalers, retailers to use their software problem, there is a great opportunity to extend credit to their entire ecosystem
    • Eg: Moglix, Channel Konnekt, Bizom etc.

Example of a Lender – ASP Partnership

  • Consider a services-based company which provides advertising services to multiple companies
  • Let’s assume they use an accounting software like for example Cleartax or Zoho
  • In the software, the SMB sees a one-click credit button (This is enabled through an integration with the ASP & lender)
  • In a few clicks, the SMB is able to share multiple types of data like – GST, Payroll, Balance Sheet, Bank Statement etc. with the lender
  • With consent, the lender uses this data for underwriting, build a credit score and makes a credit offer to the SMB
  • The SMB provides his bank account details for real-time loan disbursement and based on the type of the business you can complete KYC
  • Take mandate either digitally or physically based on the customer for repayments

There are various other data sources one could use to improve the underwriting like – Smartphone, Payments Data from the Bank, Bill Payments, Electronic Toll Collection & various others. Algorithms can use these data sources along with other other public data sets like – Seasonal demand for a product, Import/Export, GDP, Consumption Patterns to do contextual lending.

We recommend you go through the presentation above to understand these basics & do watch the pre-recorded webinar session below on How to Leverage GST data for Flow-based lending for more details.

At iSPIRT, we are working with multiple stakeholders to create a winning implementation of Flow-Based Lending. Do watch out for future announcements from us for entrepreneurs working in this space or write to us [email protected] to know more.

About the Author

Nikhil Kumar is a full-time fellow with iSPIRT Foundation, a non for profit think-thank and has been focussed on building the developer ecosystem for the India Stack.

Twitter: @nikhilkumarks

Build On IndiaStack – Venture Pitch Competition

Announcing ‘Venture Pitch Competition: #BuildOnIndiaStack’

Dalberg and iSPIRT invite applications from early-stage ventures that are tech-
based solutions leveraging the India Stack platform at the core of their business
model to bring financial or transactional services to the underserved in India.
Pitch to some of the leading investors and thinkers in the Indian start-up ecosystem,
including the Bharat Innovations Fund, Omidyar Network and Unitus Seed Fund.
Winners will spend an hour of 'Think Time' – a mentorship session with
technology evangelist Nandan Nilekani.

Who are we looking for?

We are open to all innovations that use the India Stack to unlock new business
models or reach previously underserved new customer segments across sectors
such as financial services, education, healthcare and others. Some core focus areas
for the competition may include digital lending and supporting activities, such as
alternative credit scoring; sector specific affordable digital finance services such as
health insurance or education loans; sector specific digital services such as skilling
and certification, property registration agreements, patient-centric healthcare
management; and SaaS platforms “as a service” that support the development of
other India Stack based innovations such as Digi-locker or e-sign providers.

 

Who is eligible?
All applicants should:
1. Meet the 3-point criteria: tech enabled, leveraging India Stack Platform and
serving the underservedBe

2. Be a part of two (minimum) to four (maximum) members team including the
founder of the companyBe early stage start-ups that have received only seed (or limited angel)

3. Be early stage start-ups that have received only seed (or limited angel)
funding, if at all

 
What is in it for you?
The investor group, comprising of Bharat Innovations Fund, Omidyar Network and
Unitus Seed Fund, is a network of investors and operators, entrepreneurs and
technologists, designers and engineers, academicians and policy makers, with the
singular mission to solve some of India’s toughest problems.

Through this event you have an opportunity to receive:

-Exclusive focus on tech innovations that leverage the India Stack platform
and have the potential to address the underservedFlexible

-Flexible, insight driven, funding of up to Rs. 8 lakhs for early stage, innovative
modelsStrategic

-Strategic business support, through their specialists to support investees in
their strategy and growthA chance to be a part of the India Stack ecosystem through partnerships,

-A chance to be a part of the India Stack ecosystem through partnerships,
pilots, workshops, conferences and network building exercises

Visit www.buildonindiastack.in and send your pitch now.

Time to decode the ‘Social’ in ‘Social Commerce’

“If I had to guess, Social Commerce is the next area to really blow up” – Mark Zuckerberg

‘Social Commerce’ or more simply ‘Social Payments’ has been a relatively new concept to come up in the last few years. And in most cases, it remained like the early days of big data – easier to toss around but not presenting a clear picture. I believe the vagueness gets accentuated by the fact of the word ‘Social’ being a part of it. This is what leads a whole set of audience out there, to think that just latching on to or simply appending a ‘pay’ option inside a social network makes up for the concept. Nothing could be further from the truth. The true meaning of the word ‘Social’ in ‘Social Commerce’ is actually the full context of your real life use cases where any social activity is involved. For example – a dinner with your friends, an act of planning and sharing cost for a gift, so on & so forth.

don't keep calmIn fact, if you actually ponder, you would perceive that the real driver of this phenomenon has been something else entirely. It is the proliferation of ‘shared economy’ lifestyle that makes these social use cases so prominent and common for us.  Also your payment instances and touch points intersect across the whole matrix of these use cases. Traditionally, the process has been pretty fragmented with the social & fun experience never coming across in those payments you made with your friends. Until now!

And the reasons are plentiful. Let’s start from why social commerce has not worked with the incumbents (your digital wallets) –

  • The pain of uploading money first from your bank account (because come on, you don’t keep large amounts of money in your mobile wallet)
  • The limits of sending money to another wallet (You can’t send more than Rs. 10k at one time as a normal user!)
  • The charges and time delays on withdrawing my wallet balance into my bank account (They are charging you for transferring your money back to yourself!)

And I am sure you must have realized that the arrival of our own stack – UPI is the one of the key turn arounds (the ‘Paypal moment’) for Indian ecosystem, especially in terms of enabling ‘Social Payments’ as a category to exist independently in a big manner. UPI has brought about 10X the simplicity and 10X the speed which is a core pre-requisite for situations where you need to share money with your friends without any awkwardness. Now imagine adding all your social use cases on top of this beautiful and secure base of UPI. As you may have realized by now, that not only does it create a completely new paradigm but also increases the value by an order of magnitude (because of the network effects). 

Once the wheels of motion start on any evolutionary path, it becomes almost impossible to stop them. The natural extension is that this category is bound to grow in India as well both in numbers and value (give the fact that it has already reached to 10s of billions of dollars in the west (US) with Venmo and the east (China) with WePay). The key thing to remember here is that in any new economy, it requires a fresh approach and outlook since the positioning is different from traditional P2P players and hence the product delivery and experience also needs to be different for the user. There have been numerous examples around the world with large social networks trying to add a basic P2P payments functionality and hoping it to take off in a big way. But it has not worked that well numerous examples like Snapcash (P2P payments via Snapchat in US).

sharing moneyThis brings us full circle to the two golden philosophies that have stood the test of time again and again –

  1. The products that work on the premise of ‘this thing/activity can be done here too’ never make the cut. For example – ‘You can send money on Paypal too!’ is NOT what a Venmo user is thinking.
  2. Once a consumer associates a product with a certain repeat and high frequency use case, it becomes nearly impossible to change his habit and perception for that product. For example – Messenger has traditionally been a place for sending messages and that is what a user thinks of when he recalls that app (and not for sending money).

This is where the formidable advantage of having a clean slate comes in –

  • Tailoring the product design around your real world habits when it comes to splitting, collecting, managing and tracking all your payments with your close contacts
  • Ensuring that the experience is insanely fun so that it takes away all the awkwardness that traditionally accompanies any monetary transaction with your friends
  • Ensuring that the product caters to all your use cases to such a minute detail that even you get surprised when it comes to the features!

Needless to say that I am more than excited about how the Indian market is evolving in the fin-tech domain (especially with the Indian government supporting it at an awesome level). Look forward to continued awesomeness and magic along the way.

Cheers, Rohit Taneja, Mypoolin

Payment Bank + Technology = Faster Profitability

Something very exciting is happening in India.Several Payment Banks are about to launch their operations with a dream to provide banking & transaction services esp. to millions of rural and semi urban un-banked & under-banked households. This is expected to greatly boost domestic remittances, rural savings & reduce dependency on cash.

One of the most important questions these banks is how to achieve profitability faster & sustain it while maintaining a low cost structure & capturing volumes.

Using modern digital technology is the answer.

There are 5 ways technology can help a payment bank not just to be operationally efficient but also establish a competitive edge:

Mobility: Total number of mobile phone connections in India crossed 1 billion (1003.49 million) mark in Oct 2015. Out of this, 902,26 million connection were active. 42.39% are rural subscribers & 57.61% are urban.About 1 in 5 uses a smartphone (220 million) and rest use feature phones.This strengthens a key assumption that each & every prospective customer has a mobile phone & he/she will consume most of the banking services on mobile. So, the offering has to be mobile:

  • USSD based for feature phones & app based for smartphones
  • Easy to use & secure
  • In local language
  • Integrated with the ecosystem of Bank Mitra (banking correspondents), Aadhaar enabled payments (AEP), Aadhaar enabled KYC, digital wallets, real time payments (IMPS).

The recent introduction of Unified Payments Interface (UPI) is a very welcome step by NPCI (National Payments Corporation of India).

Analytics: Customers’ data is a gold mine. Their transaction behaviour (deposits, withdrawals, subsidy receipts, categorised expenditures) makes a case for offerings that are truly “personalized”. For example, if a customer has incurred expenses in a hospital, they can automatically be offered a health or a life insurance product. The schemes launched by PM Modi cost Rs 12 (for health) & Rs 330 (for life). If a customer regularly receive say subsidy payments, they can be offered a long term savings product e.g. Atal Pension Yojana. The amount can be directly debited and is totally paperless for customer.

Analytics tools (SAS, R etc) combined with “small data” harnessing abilities will make it possible.

In UK, the banking regulator is encouraging Open APIs which in simpler words means encouraging bank to open up data vaults to fintechs and others who can offer useful products to the customers. BBVA Bank (US & Spain) has made customer data available through APIs. (Note: I assume customer has consented for data sharing).

Cloud Computing: Cloud solutions offer unparalleled scalability, flexible pricing models (you grow – we grow) & tight security. If data privacy concerns can be handled, there is a strong case for using cloud when compared to investing in a private data centre.

Automate Business Processes: More and more back office processes need to automated reducing dependency on human resources. The digital offerings have to be such that they are fully integrated with bank’s core processes and leverage the modern work flow solutions.

Referral Engines: Though the payment banks can’t lend, it doesn’t mean their customers do not need credit. These banks can refer the customer to other ‘full service banks’/NBFCs and earn commissions. Value added data like banks opinion about the customer, risk profile, transaction patterns, income potential can fetch additional revenue for the payment bank. Smart referral engines can be deployed that share info, calculate and track commissions.

India needs these payment banks to succeed & sustain in order to achieve a true Financial Inclusion and bring the Bharat under a financial umbrella.

India’s IT sector’s tech prowess and their ability to innovate/execute is what the country needs the most.

Jai Hind.

Guest Post by 

Cracking a niche B2B market without funding: Valuefy’s Story

Valuefy was started in 2010 to empower fund houses to make informed decisions better and faster. Vivek Singal, a B.Tech from IIT Bombay and Sharad Singh, an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad worked together at Fractal Analytics, an analytics firm, before starting Valuefy.

On choosing to build a product like this, Vivek shares, “When we chose our niche, which was a B2B product for such a specific market, at the time when eCommerce was growing, it took a lot of faith. It was a slow journey, but definitely a profitable journey. Our clients have been very sticky and we are collectively helping manage over 100 billion dollars worth of funds at this point.“

Cracking B2B market without funding: Valuefy

Here are some excerpts from a conversation with Vivek:

Where did the story of Valuefy start?

VS: “Whole science around the portfolio management is a very niche play. Valuefy has been serving Indian players so far. To give you an idea, we are servicing 2 of the top 3 fund houses of the country. We have cemented our place in an Indian market.

We picked up analytics as a domain since number crunching was our forte, coming from our experience with Fractal Analytics. We were intrigued to find the frameworks and algorithms that helped the fund houses make decisions. We wanted to understand if there was any tool that they were using to decompose their performance, analyse returns, and understand what are the drivers.

There are some large global organizations that were working in this area, but they didn’t seem to respond to the change in technology to create more sophisticated agile tools. So they were placed as a middle office tool, but not a decision-making tool.“

What were your major road blocks in your journey, and how did you overcome them?

VS: “First off, it is very difficult to do a product strategy in this kind of a market. Our clients are very comfortable with excel as a tool where they can manage their reports on an ad-hoc basis, even though it can only give 10% of the information. Our study says that 60% of a fund manager’s time goes in understanding and processing the data which leaves them with very little time to analyse the performance and the portfolio. The problem is that they are so used to it, that it is very difficult to break this pattern and bring the adoption of technology amongst the fund managers.

Second, when we started, the markets were not favouring our product. We realized that the bigger clients were more open to it. Also, we think the international customers would have been more open to the product but the markets were slow.”

What goes into marketing such a niche product?

VS: “

  1. We have created a global advisory board. It includes people who have experience in the domain, people from our competition, also, people from the academia who are helping us with it.
  2. We have formed some key partnerships with global conglomerates. It helps as a marketing platform as well as a distribution channel.
  3. We started as a hosted product, but we have grown it into a SaaS based model, which has made it simple for us to integrate with the global companies and this will help sustain our global expansion.”

What is your advice to people who want to startup? 

VS:”

  1. Identify the market correctly. We served the Indian market for a very long time. While our market was global, we spent a lot of time on Indian markets first. So you will need to take the decision and define your market.
  2. Get the connect to the market. While you may be good at creating something, but a venture needs both a good product and good marketing and sales. So plan accordingly.
  3. Keep faith in your journey until you decide that you have given a fair chance to it.

People become a pendulum between deciding whether revenue generation is more important or increasing the valuation is more important. While valuations are sexier, I think if you want a sustainable growth and a strong business model, revenue generation helps create that solid foundation.”

Valuefy has definitely established that B2B businesses focussing on revenue generation and profitability can create a sustain an enviable growth. We wish Vivek and his team all the luck in their journey.

A payment gateway that onboards you in less than a week: Razorpay

If you are a startup looking for payment gateway integration and the process adherence is killing you, Razorpay might save the hassle.

Founded by Shashank Kumar and Harshil Mathur in 2014, Razorpay is positioned to provide you with a payment gateway solution within a week’s time. Shashank shares that his inability to find a gateway to accept international payments and the enviable ease with which it could be done in US, drove him to start Razorpay.

Here are some interesting bits from iSPIRT’s interview with Shashank:

What triggered you to start up?

SK: “My co-founder and I know each other from college days. After we graduated, we kept working on side projects, mostly for fun. For one of our side projects, we wanted a payment gateway to accept international transactions. However, it had a bunch of requirements like we should have a proper office space, past operational record as a company, fixed deposit of over 1 lakh, and more. Even after fulfilling those requirements, it would take 1 to 3 months for activation. Overall, we had a negative experience. We went online and found that most people, mostly startups, shared a similar experience.

There were 2 issues. First, it was a technical challenge. But more importantly, it was a startup challenge. The gateways, at least at that time (2013), were not ready to serve the startups. The issue needed to be addressed with a fresh mindset. We thought we could do something about it.”

RazorpayWhat has been the role of the accelerators in shaping your journey?

SK: “We started from Jaipur to save cost and were working from home initially. Soon we started looking for co-working spaces and came across Startup Oasis, which had come up as an incubator and a co-working hub. Other startups there were also our target market. So we got a lot of first had feedback on our product as we grew. The team at the incubator also made a lot of introductions for us.

When YCombinator happened, they changed our entire thought process on how the company needs to work. They helped with our initial launch, raising money, hiring, managing ESOPs, etc. Also, people took us more seriously now since we were a YC company. We were thinking in terms of how big the space is and taking care of our core business, while the accelerator helped us with the other roles.”

What was your most prominent roadblock?

SK: “We went and talked to multiple banks for offering payments. However, since we did not have any prior experience they were averse to us. Given the failure rate of startups I think it is understandable, since they are accountable for everything. Slowly things are changing, but even now it is very difficult for banks to take early stage startups seriously.”

What would be your advice people who want to startup?

SK: “Pick up a problem that you yourself have experienced; that is the perfect place to start solving. If you become your own target market, it helps. Once you go deep into the domain, you will realize if the problem is big enough for you to solve it. It should be a problem that your network or peer group is facing so that you get your initial set of customers and are able to validate your product.

Have set timelines. It helps to know what you want to do. When we started, we had zero domain knowledge, but our vision was very clear. Once that is clear, one can define the current situation and set future timelines. It will take time to achieve whatever you aspire, but you need to put those numbers on paper first. Figure the knowledge gaps and put timelines against them. If one approach does not work, try something different and see how you get to it. The idea is to not get stuck and keep moving on instead.

It would be great if you could get a mentor at an early stage. Even otherwise, there are a lot of resources online that might help. The idea is to understand what problem exactly are you trying to solve, and then creating a framework around it. It gives a very reliable structure to be able to solve the problem.

Apply to accelerator programs. There application process itself will push you to answer questions, you thought you already had answers to.”

After having raised a round of funding, Razorpay has been aggressively growing in the market with encouraging customer response. We wish them a long and sustainable growth.

Getting loans for SMEs is now simple: Getfiscal #FinTech

Getfiscal was started in May 2015 to help SMEs manage their cash flows and simplify the process of raising loan. It already has about 100 costumers on the platform, and has helped raise loans worth over 1 crore. Before starting up, co-founders Aditya Tulsian and Baskar Ganapathy, were a part of the team responsible for launching Intuit’s accounting and tax software in India.

Here are interesting excerpts from the conversation with Co-founder and CEO, Aditya Tulsian, who shares what it takes to quit a good job and startup.

Why Getfiscal?

“When we took Intuit’s software to Indian SMEs, we found two things:

First, Indian businesses are not looking for full-fledged accounting software. They want a simple way to manage the basic cash flow – the money-in and money-out.

Second, whenever the business wants a loan, it is a big problem. In India the entire cash flow is being managed on excel sheets. It is cumbersome, time consuming. The amount of effort for a bank to underwrite a loan for 10 lakh is the same as that required for 10 crore, which made the banks completely ignore this segment. That’s where we wanted to create a simple but robust platform to help SMEs manage cash flows, and then use that data to enable an NBFC or a bank to give out a working capital loan.“

GetFiscalWhat was your inspiration behind leaving your job and starting up?

“For me, both my father and my wife have their own businesses. I was closely involved with them, right from forming their company to managing their finances. So it only seemed natural.

Second, we felt that the opportunity was so phenomenal, and both Bhaskar and I had spent enough time in this ecosystem in India, that we could quickly go in, use our knowledge and experience and create a business out of it.”

What do you look for in new hires?

“We are a team of 11 people at this point. We look for 2 things:

  1. We look for passion in the idea. The person has to believe in the idea because the journey is going to be anything but easy.
  1. We are looking for a person who is willing to learn. Though different flavors of this have been done across the globe, the approach that we have taken, where product led financing is the key, that is, we bring the small businesses on the platform and then help them get a loan; this has not happened. Therefore the team needs to constantly have a learning mindset.”

How difficult or easy is it to onboard the SMEs in India?

“Very clearly, they have a genuine problem of managing everything on excel. Excel though flexible, in the end is manual and very error prone. So we see a lot them adopting our platform, even if they do not need a loan.

We are solving for the entire value chain of financial management, for today, when one wants to create an invoice, he manages it on one excel sheet, and then tracks it on a different excel sheet, checks the status in the bank and then gives all this data to the chartered accountant who then files a tax. So there are multiple platforms that have to be touched for a single invoice. So the pain point itself is huge for them.

The other thing everyone losses their sleep is for money, and we are helping them get a loan. So it is simple logic to adapt it.

Now, onboarding has 2 aspects to it: mind set and migration.

To address the mindset issue, we are targeting SMEs who are less than 4 years in business, because that is where the adopters lie.

For migration, we provide a 5 minute mapping, where you can upload your existing excels. For majority of the existing software, you will have to go out and adopt their invoicing format, but not so with us.”

What tips would you share with the people who are looking to quit their jobs and start up?

“Everyone has his or her own journey, but here is what I think it takes:

  1. You have to have passion for the idea. If you don’t believe in the idea, there is no point in working on it. The passion can be for any reason; it could be for the huge amount of money, or it could be for the pain point, or you yourself feel the need for it.
  1. Before you start off, you have to think about a team. While working on the idea, also look for a team. They will help you not only when the chips are down, but they will also complement you. Only then you can go out and create a business, knowing that even if you are not there sometimes, things will be taken care of.”

The idea and its implementation so far looks very promising. We wish Aditya and his team, all the luck in their endeavour.

A corporate wallet to simplify business payments and expense tracking: The Happay Story

B2C wallets like Paytm and Mobikwik are known well enough. The B2B wallet story, however, is still in its nascent stage. Happay is that wallet which helps companies manage their expenses through employees, using corporate wallets.

Varun Rathi and Anshul Rai were classmates at IIT Kharagpur. They worked for 2 years before they started up. After toying with different business ideas, they zeroed in on payments, and thereafter, quit their jobs.

Happay started as a platform for splitting payments or transfer money through its wallet. However, the team, even with over 2 lakh registered users, was unable to find a good revenue model. They pivoted to address B2B payment management hassles. They have tied up with Ratnakar Bank to issue corporate cards which double as expense management system for the company. The companies can issue these cards to all their employees, and, at the back end, track, or even cap the permissible amount for each card.

Here is an excerpt from Varun’s interview with iSPIRT:

Why did you Startup?

VR: “I come from a business family and so, I think I inherited the urge to start something of own business. It was different from a typical Marwari business, because I wanted to make a technology business that was scalable”.

Why did you choose to address payments?

VR: “The payments market in itself is globally very large and scalable. So even if you solve a small problem in payments, it can go big.

Last 5-10 years have seen a lot of sourcing through wallets. So we thought this was the problem we should solve. Our solution was quite a hit between students and young professionals. However, there was no strong revenue model. Also, we had to go to all vendors and get them to accept those payments through our instrument, which was proving difficult.

On the other hand, a lot of businesses would come to us looking for payments solution. There was no product that would address their issue. So we decided to pivot.”

You decided to pivot from B2C to B2B. What were your major challenges?

VR: “First biggest challenge was to unlearn whatever we had learned and focus exclusively on talking to customers which we didn’t do with the first product.

The first product seemed more intuitive to the team, as we ourselves were the customers. This time around the team talked to over 1000 customers to understand their problems.”

As for aligning the team, Varun shares, “Our team was very young, with no one with more than 2-3 years of experience. So they were open to learn new things. Besides, it took us 9-10 months, to come up with the new product. This gave enough time to the team to align themselves.”

Next challenge was in terms of requirements of the business. “With a B2B product, we realized that businesses needed handholding at every step. Where we scaled to 2 lakh registered users with just 5 members in the team, this time around, we ended up hiring for different teams, taking the number of employees to about 100.

We hired the first person that could give a demo to the customers. Then we needed someone for lead generation, as the product does not automatically reach the target audience. Even after a customer is acquired, we needed to hire for relationship management and customer support. The customers even after signing up would not take the next steps themselves.”

What are the challenges in coming up with an expense card? Why have other expense management companies not done it?

VR: “ Getting such a card and its integration in place, is a difficult process. It requires a license, partnership with the bank, a certification with VISA, and a strong technology team to support all of it. It takes about a year to complete just the processes.

We were in the business of payments, from the start. So our initial aim was to develop applications over the payments platform. We first solved the payments problem and then later on built expense management software over it. Other players made the software and started selling it. They never had the intention of going deeper into the payments problem.”

How is scaling a B2B business different from a B2C?

VR: “There are both pros and cons. B2B is slow and time taking but steady. There are some safe landings in between, so I cannot go down all of a sudden, as is the case with B2C. I can become an overnight success in a B2C product, with maybe some good PR but that can go away in a second, as it is very fragile and there is a lot of competition. In B2B, customers don’t sign up that fast, but they give you time. Once you have their trust, even if something is not perfect, they give you a month or 2 to make it right. That gives more stability to the business.”

What are the 3 things you wish you knew before you started?

VR: “Launch soon: One mistake we made was not launching the product soon. We, like most other companies, were trying to build a perfect product. But the sooner you take it to the customer; the steeper is the learning curve.

Talk to your customers: We assumed what our customers needed and built the product around it. Customers don’t know what they need till they see it. So let them see it.

Making the team will take time: Time required in hiring and nurturing team is very high. It takes almost 50% of our time. We didn’t account for it from the start and this has come across as a major learning.

What is your advice to other people starting up right off the college?

VR: “Understand the market first. If you start fresh out of college, you can take more risk. In terms of technology, you can stretch your limits, as you don’t have any responsibilities. But scaling brings problems. Hiring, building and managing the team and responding to the market needs more finesse. Understand the market so that you have at least some idea of how to respond.”

Corporate wallets address a very crucial bottleneck in managing expenses in an organisation. We wish Varun and his team at Happay, all the success.

 

Making SMEs loans a breeze with Capital Float

Typically, choosing to finance the SMEs looking for working capital loans, is not easy. First, the SMEs have smaller ticket size. Then they expect quick service and have high operational costs associated with it. ProductNation interviewed Shashank Rijyasringa and Gaurav Hinduja who started Capital Float in early 2013, a digital finance company that serves the loan requirements of SMEs in India.

Shashank having worked with McKinsey and Bain, has a background in creating, and packaging financial instruments. Gaurav on the other hand had grown and sold his family business before they met at Stanford as classmates.

“We were looking to address financial inclusion. We observed how the fin-tech space was being disrupted in US and China, and saw the huge opportunity in India. With 48 million SMEs, second just to China, with 50 million, India needed lenders who would tailor their offering to the needs of the customers. The rate of interest by the banks was much higher than expected. Also, the loan disbursement ate up a lot of time. So this need was largely catered to by the informal sector”, says Gaurav.

Registered as an NBFC with RBI, they started with an instrument for invoice financing (building loan product against invoice of blue-chip companies). The duo gradually evolved their products to provide working capital loans for SMEs. They developed underwriting models which address the specific scenarios of the SMEs.

“There are 2 broad categories of sellers coming up on eCommerce portals. First are those who sell on platforms like Zovi and Myntra, where the sellers are also the manufacturers. Other category includes retailers who sell on sites like Snapdeal and Paytm. They generate a huge demand for loans available at short notice periods with minimum hassle. That is where we found our sweet spot”, shares Shashank.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

How did you overcome the problems of traditional lending?

SR: “Firstly, our experience came in handy. My in-depth knowldge of micro-financing, packaging and selling loan instrument meant we could build the right services. Gaurav with his experience of running a business out of India, knew how to deliver the services we wanted to build.

Secondly, we met with our customers to understand what their problems really were. To a small business owner, every hour spent off the floor is an hour wasted. We came up with innovative methods like allowing same day approvals and providing loan facility over phone and laptop. These businesses needed greater accessibility and straight-forward procedures. They wanted someone who could understand the value of their time.

Third, and definitely the most crucial point was that we adopted trial and error method. Like any startup, we didn’t know exactly how things would work. We were building our instruments in-house. So we had to fail fast and experiment quickly. With agile methodology, today, we can deliver new loan products in 2 weeks. A bank would take about an year to do the same.”

How is the policy environment evolving in India, with respect to your industry?

GH:  “The Mudra banks for refinancing are a welcome move. With 950 million Aadhar numbers issued, allowing eKYC, is it much easier to issue loans. The Digital India initiative to create better internet connectivity will help us reach a much larger customer base.”

They are leveraging the Indian stack to refine their instruments and are growing with it.

How difficult is it to get payback of loans?

SR: “SMEs are the most financially aware and responsible segment, since they always manage their finances tightly. Also, our screening process mitigates high risk customers, allowing us to cater to the needs in minimum possible time frame. So that’s not much of an hassle.”

What would be the 3 lessons you have learned from your journey?

GH: “1. Perseverance – One needs to believe that the idea would work, when no one else knows if it will. It is important to stick to that optimism and keep trying to find the exact fit.

  1. Strong fundamentals – From the first day, the business needs to know where its money will come from. The cash flow should not be dependent on where one is, in the funding cycle.
  2. Rounded team – Build a great team if you want to build a great product. A strong team stands by you to make it possible.”

What would you say to the entrepreneurs starting up fresh out of college? 

SR: “There is no right time to startup. Whenever you get passionate about a problem and see a large market for it, go for it. Here are my 3 tips:

  1. Address a big problem. If you go after a problem which is not so big, it may not be worth all the effort. India provides huge opportunities with really major problems that need to be addressed.
  2. Maintain discipline. Whatever you do, think big and build for the long term.
  3. Understand your responsibility. As you grow your team, you need to realise that families of your employees are getting dependent on you. It is essential that you take your decisions wisely.”

What are the mistakes you wish you did not make?

GH: “We were too slow in the start. We should have been aggressive, and believed in ourselves more. We thought people might not accept a technological solution. We have realized however, that technology has to lead the change in society. Invest in constantly being disruptive and you will definitely make a difference.”

We thank Shashank and Varun for sharing their insights on the FinTech sector and wish them the best for their journey.