It takes time to build something successful!

Since SaaSx second edition, I have never missed a single edition of SaaSx. The 5th edition – SaaSx was recently held on the 7th of July, and the learnings and experiences were much different from the previous three that I had attended.

One primary topic this year was bootstrapping, and none other than Sridhar Vembu, the CEO and Founder of Zoho, was presenting. The session was extremely relevant and impactful, more so for us because we too are a bootstrapped organisation. Every two months of our 4.5 year-long bootstrapped journey, we have questioned ourselves on whether we have even got it right! If we should go ahead and raise funds. Sridhar’s session genuinely helped us know and understand our answers.

However, as I delved deeper, I realised that the bigger picture that Sridhar was making us aware of was the entrepreneurial journey of self-discovery. His session was an earnest attempt to promote deep thinking and self-reflection amongst all of us. He questioned basic assumptions and systematically dismantled the traditional notions around entrepreneurship. Using Zoho as an example, he showed how thinking from first principles helped them become successful as a global SaaS leader.


What is it that drives an entrepreneur? Is it the pursuit of materialistic goals or the passion to achieve a bigger purpose? The first step is to have this clarity in mind, as this can be critical in defining the direction your business would take. Through these questions, Sridhar showed that business decisions are not just driven by external factors but by internal as well.

For example, why should you chase high growth numbers? As per him, the first step to bootstrapping is survival. The top 5 goals for any startup should be Survive, Survive, Survive, Survive, Survive. Survival is enough. Keep your costs low and make sure all your bills are paid on time.  Cut your burn rate to the lowest. Zoho created 3 lines of business. The current SaaS software is their 3rd. They created these lines during their journey of survival and making ends meet.


Why go after a hot segment (with immense competition) instead of a niche one?  If it’s hot, avoid it i.e. if a market segment is hot or expected to be hot, it will be heavily funded. It will most likely be difficult to compete as a bootstrapped organisation and is henceforth avoidable. Zoho released Zoho docs in 2007, but soon as he realized that Google and Microsoft had entered the space, he reoriented the vision of Zoho to stay focused on business productivity applications. Zoho docs continues to add value to Zoho One, but the prime focus is on Applications from HR, Finance, Support, Sales & Marketing and Project Management.  Bootstrapping works best if you find a niche, but not so small that it hardly exists. You will hardly have cut throat competition in the niche market and will be able to compete even without heavy funding.

Most SaaS companies raise funds for customer acquisition. Even as a bootstrapped company customer acquisition is important. As you don’t have the money, you will need to optimise your marketing spend. Try and find a cheaper channel first and use these as your primary channel of acquisition. Once you have revenue from the these channels, you can start investing in the more expensive one. By this time you will also have data on your life time value and will be able to take better decisions.

Similarly, why base yourself out of a tier 1 city instead of tier 2 cities (with talent abound)? You don’t need to be in a Bangalore, Pune, or a Mumbai to build a successful product. According to Sridhar, if he wanted to start again, he would go to a smaller city like Raipur. Being in an expensive location will ends up burning your ‘meager monies’ faster. This doesn’t mean that being in the top IT cities of India is bad for your business, but if your team is located in one of the smaller cities, do not worry. You can still make it your competitive advantage.

Self-discipline is of utmost importance for a bootstrapped company. In fact, to bootstrap successfully, you need to ensure self-discipline in spends, team management, customer follow-ups, etc. While bootstrapping can demand frugality and self-discipline, the supply of money from your VC has the potential to destroy the most staunchly disciplined entrepreneurs as well. Watch out!

And last but not the least – It takes time to build something successful. It took Zoho 20 years to make it look like an overnight success.

This blog is authored by Ankit Dudhwewala, Founder – CallHippo, AppItSimple Infotek, Software Suggest. Thanks to Anukriti Chaudhari and Ritika Singh from iSPIRT to craft the article.

Voice of Customer Digital platform for Indian SMEs – the Inquirly story #BootUpINDIA

inquirly-logoInquirly is an integrated Voice of Customer Digital platform, designed exclusively to help Indian SMEs listen to their customers, engage with them, act on specific requests, all of these, using a single integrated platform. Product Nation interviewed Anjan Choudhary, founder of Inquirly to understand about the start-up, its products and experiences working with Indian SME customers. Read on… 

Tell us about the circumstances which led to creation of Inquirly

Inquirly came into existence formally about a year ago. However, the thought process behind it started some time during 2012 – when I was working at Accenture. Inquirly was born primarily due to the culmination of my prior experience as an entrepreneur in the manufacturing sector, and later as an IT professional working in an MNC.

While at work for Accenture, in the US, I noticed that digital technologies were disrupting the economy in many different facets – bringing about new ways to perform marketing and sales activities, financial transactions etc for an enterprise. Immediately, it stuck to me that I could leverage these technological advances, and put it to use to serve the sales and marketing needs of many SMBs in developing markets. This led me to start small experiments to validate my thoughts and concepts. After a few iterations, and early customer validation, I quit my job to start Inquirly.

What is unique about your product – and how do you think it differentiates itself in the marketplace?

Inquirly is an Integrated Voice of the Customer Digital platform that enables companies to move beyond the limitations of traditional marketing, Sales, and customer service. Inquirly offers a holistic platform to listen to the customer, engage with the customer and act on real time and continuous actionable data thereby enabling businesses to get precise insights leading to proactive business decisions that result in greater efficiency, enhanced customer satisfaction & engagement and ultimately propelling continuous business growth.

For example, a restaurant owner, can monitor all online review comments from one screen with sentiment and Intent analytics, influence scores, by using this platform she can also understand the prospective customer preferences of dining, identify and target the prospective customers more effectively by offering discounts and other incentives, review whether these promotions worked effectively or not, and most importantly, get actionable feedback from customers – all of these in real time. Most of these could not have been done on a single platform earlier – and at affordable price points. This is how Inquirly differentiates itself from other point based solution providers.

Describe your experiences from the field during your first six months. What were the key learnings you obtained from these initial days of operation?

AnjanWe have had both good and bad experiences as we started to work full time on this product. The good part is that we have been continuously getting positive feedback on the features and utility of our product from our customers. Early adopters have given us constructive feedback on how things can be improved further – and we have been at it.

On the other end, one of the key things we misread during the early days was our assumption about the Indian market opportunity. During the controlled launch period, we learnt that the market penetration was not going to be at the pace we had initially assumed, and so, we had to rework on those projections a bit. We also learnt that India is not a Do It Yourself (DIY) market and so we had to start our services arm much early than we anticipated. Another important one was that recurring payments in SaaS based platform is not possible as per the Government guidelines and the market is not ready to make yearly/quarterly payments in advance.

As a result of the above experiences, we have learnt that we need to remain agile, identify the right ‘Market’/ buyer persona and target the same with perseverance, and to invest in inbound marketing while building the product.

How has internal operations at Inquirly evolved based on the above market place realities that you narrated?

Clearly, the learning we have had from the field has impacted our internal organization. On the sales front, due to our experiments in our early months, we now have a good understanding of the sweet spot for our product and also on its applicability in different domains. We now have been converging on this set, and have built up case studies and business scenarios, which is helping the sales team to close more deals.

Having a very strong, balanced development team is always one of the key assets to a start-up. We have ensured that our development team is staffed with the right mix of experienced folks and young talent – so that we are able to iterate on new features within weeks and release the updates to the market. On the financials front, we have been bootstrapped all this while, we are on target to break even by March 2015, post which, we expect to get more financial leverage to expand our business to other cities in India in the short-term. In the long-term, we do plan to go international.

Thank you for your insights! In closing, can I ask you to share three things that you deem as priority for product entrepreneurs targeting the Indian customers?

Sure. First and foremost, make sure that you converge on the target market which has the most burning need to use your product. This may take few iterations in the early days, but be at it and ensure that you have greater clarity on the sub-set of customer segment that you want to target to begin with. Second, ensure that you simplify user experience dramatically. The adoption rate of Indian customers, in my opinion, is directly dependent on how easily they can use your product. Last, perseverance is required when working with emerging market – since, given the nature of the market, and the background of customers, you need to continuously work with them to reassure the value that they will obtain, by using your product. This will mean that your sales cycle will be longer. Hence, plan for it in advance and execute accordingly. Good luck!

 

 

 

Cropin – Transforming agribusiness sector by leveraging ICT

Cropin Technologies are one of the leading players in the niche and emerging agribusiness startups. Krishna Kumar, CEO of Cropin shares his journey and perspectives with Product Nation in this discussion. Read on…

You are among a niche set of startups that have focused on agribusiness opportunities. Could you provide an overview of your organization – what you do, whom do you cater?

Cropin is our effort to leverage the advances in Information Technology (IT) and apply it on the agribusiness sector. Over the years, we have successfully created an efficient and safer food supply chain for consumers around the world, by putting a network of ERP and BI solutions that different stakeholders of the agriculture supply chain use and update on a regular basis. This has ensured that all participants of the process get visibility of activities in near real time basis – which in turn has ensured superior quality and safety of food for end consumers.

CropinYou started your career with an MNC company. What prompted you to start Cropin? Did your work experience help you after you set up Cropin?

I started to work for GE after my graduation. I was doing very well at my job, I got recognized for coming up with new solutions that had market impact. To groom me further, GE put me on a very niche leadership training program that spanned over 2 years – which provided me well rounded skills related to new business development, financials etc. These aspects helped me get equipped with the basic skills needed to manage businesses across the lifecycle.

While this was going on, some developments about farmers suicide and people throwing tomatoes on the road for lack of viable price made me sit up and take notice of their plight. I started to think deeply on if anything could be done to alleviate – even partially, these issues of farmers. I soon realized that information asymmetry caused most of these problems to all stakeholders involved in agriculture. This led to a thought of creating a platform where all key stakeholders – the buyers of produce, farmers and other involved institutions could interact seamlessly and transparently.

Can you describe some of your early experiences as you setup Cropin? What worked, and what did not work?

At the very beginning, the idea I had was to make every farm traceable – and I thought that once this was achieved, all stakeholders interested in that piece of the farm land could easily collaborate. However, after spending 6 months dabbling with this idea – I realized that this business model was not sustainable – primarily because the farmers, who are the key stakeholders in this supply chain simply could not afford to pay us the amounts that were required to sustain the tracking and tracing capabilities of their farms. So, the next logical step was to sell the idea of traceability of farms to companies who procured regularly from farmers. This pivot in our business model really worked, and we were able to provide a host of benefits to not only the buyers (companies), but also to the farmers, in a sustainable way.

Most procurers of agricultural produce are large companies. How did you go about acquiring customers?

You are right, in that we had to sell this idea of traceability of farms to large companies. As we started, we had identified a few farms in the vicinity of Bangalore, from where I had heard these sad stories of farmers’ plight. When we started working there with a few farmers, we noticed that Safal was actively procuring produce from the farmers in that vicinity. So, we approached Safal and offered to help them out. With a lot of coaxing and hard selling, they finally agreed for a free pilot which we ran for about 6 months. These 6 months gave us so much learning and insight about the core issues that every stakeholder faces in the supply chain. Although Safal later did not continue the pilot, nor did they provide us business, they helped us identify the key issues that needed to be solved.

Armed with this knowledge, we slowly started approaching other major procurers. Fieldfresh (a joint venture between Bharti and Belmonte) bought into our story and initially asked us to monitor a very tiny portion of the land that they engaged with. Once we executed beyond their expectations, we increased our business with them by over 20 times their initial order. While we were working with these initial customers, we also got a good push from CNBC Young Turk Program – who made a story on what we were attempting – and this had created some goodwill amongst the CEOs of top companies engaged in this business.

Although going beyond these initial customers was difficult, I was persistent in my attempts to reach out to key decision makers in companies such as Maccain, Mahindra, Kancor, Technico, etc. Over multiple discussions and meetings with them, I was able to convince them that our startup would provide them the value that eluded them hitherto, and that we were competent to understand the nuances of the business that we were in. These efforts resulted in us signing up virtually all the large companies that operate out of India in the food produce procurement space. Of course, as we dealt with each company, we also learned about specific needs that our solution did not cater to – and over time, we were able to make our solution robust and feature rich – without compromising on usability, to cater to these needs.

The other key aspect is that all along, I have been able to get the buy-in of key seed and angel investors who have believed in the capabilities and potential of our team and the solution. This has helped me to scale our operations rapidly from managing 6 acres in 2010 to managing more than 40000 acres by 2013 – across 14 states of our country and now looking to expand our operations in other emerging markets across the world.

Tell us about the key capabilities of your solution that has resulted in such large scale embracement of customers. What are your plans to enhance these capabilities in the future?

I can describe the benefits of usage of our solution in terms of the different stakeholders who use our product. For farmers who grow the produce under a contract to the buyers, the benefit is real time advice from agricultural experts from across the world on any unknown/unforeseen development that hinders their crops. This ensures that they get the assured price for their crops. For buyers and procurement offices of these large companies, our solution helps to plan and forecast their procurement, provides 360 degree view of every detail of status of agricultural produce at any farm land under contract. We provide a variety of alerts that they can track and mitigate risk of fall in output.

The other key USP of our solution is the ease of use of the capabilities. Since our solution is cloud based and is rendered on cell phones, farmers can easily use voice or video to communicate and collaborate with experts to report or to seek input on an issue. They can talk in their local language or better still, upload a picture taken from their cell phone to explain the issue at hand. On the other end, the procurement officials find mobility of the solution a great aid in efficiently managing their tasks. I can confidently state that we are the first ones in the world to provide visibility to the most granular level possible in the agribusiness supply chain thus far.

Looking ahead, we are trying out various experiments to improve different aspects of our tracing capabilities. Our focus always has been to use the cutting edge technology for the benefit of our customers. We are using Big data and analytics to create next generation agriculture practices and inteligent systems which keep learning from the past. In this regard, we are evaluating usage of Google Glass for information capture and reporting capabilities. We are also toying with UAVs to evaluate whether we can map the areas under cultivation more effectively.

All these sound very exciting! For the benefit of fellow product entrepreneurs who are targeting Indian market, tell us three things that you have done right thus far.

First and foremost, identify who in the customer organization is the decision maker on engaging with you. Once you identify the customer stakeholder, engage continuously till closure of the deal. Enterprise customers take a long time to close a deal – so persistence is key.

Second – ensure that your work gets noticed to the right audience and beyond. I spent a good amount of time in marketing our efforts through various channels – television, news magazines and others. We were covered extensively by most coveted programs such as the Times Now News story, CNBC-TV18’s Young Turks, Fortune Magazine and by other leading national business dailies.  These activities provided legitimacy and the right visibility and helped us talk to the CXOs of the enterprise companies, who otherwise would have thought twice to engage with a young company such as ours.

Third one is about building a strong core team that will help scale the company. I have been fortunate to have Kunal(Founder) and Jena(Co-Founder) join me in 2011 and 2012 respectively as part of the core team. They complement my efforts and have provided the right ingredients for our company to progress forward. We also have a great set of advisors and investors who we use as a sounding board to validate our moves. All of these, in my mind are the things done right thus far!.

User experience and User acquisition are key strategies that a startup should pursue relentlessly – Nitin, CEO of Zepo.in

ProductNation interviewed Nitin, CEO of Zepo.in to understand his successes in enabling Indian businesses sell online. Zepo.in boasts of enabling more than 1200 businesses to sell online within a short span of 30 months. Read further to understand the key aspects that facilitated this success… 

What was the motivation to start Zepo.in? 

Zepo logoThe idea of Zepo.in came as a result of some challenges I faced during my previous stints of managing a T-shirt business and a startup. In particular, while I was running the T-shirt business, I realized how difficult it was for small businesses like us to get online and sell to the Indian market. We got fooled by a web developer who charged us a bomb and came up with a crappy website, we had to shell out huge percentage of our sales to payment gateways, and we did not have the right logistics support to help us deliver our products to our customers on time, to name a few.

These challenges made me realize that there is a huge opportunity in India, if I could make it easier for businesses to sell online, relieving them of all the pains of operational details such as website management, payment and delivery headaches. Zepo.in was born to address these pain points, and I am happy to tell you that we now have successfully enabled more than 1200 small businesses to conduct business online in a hassle-free manner!

Very Interesting! Could you share with us your initial experiences – both good and bad, as you started Zepo.in?

Nitin Purswani Sure. I think there have been lots of good things that have happened since we decided to start Zepo.in. The first thing that comes to my mind is that, before even we formally started off our operations, we had 6 customers who had already given us post dated cheques – just by listening to what we were building. This gave us validation from the customer end – also helped us to tweak our offering better based on the initial set of feedback.

Secondly, we got into the Morpheus accelerator and on account of that, we learnt a lot from Sameer and others out there. The Morpheus team helped us with lots of things, most importantly in bringing in very good and talented people to our company early on. All our key people – the CTO, our designer, key Sales and Marketing folks were all on board, thanks to guidance from Sameer. We also were able to get the angel round of funding at the right time, from Vijay Shekar Sharma, founder of the One97 Fund. Both of these helped us immensely to start on a strong foot.

On the things that we did not do correctly, perhaps pricing was something that we did not do correctly at the beginning. We started off with our pricing being nearly half of what we charge now. However, based on initial customer feedback, we arrived at the price which is a win-win.

Could you describe the current portfolio of businesses that are using Zepo.in to sell online? Also, how are you ensuring that they benefit from working with you?

While Zepo.in can be used by any business willing to sell online, we right now have retailers and manufactures using our site predominantly. Most businesses in the retailer segment are from fashion accessories and clothing, while home based product manufacturers, women enterprises, proprietary and partnership firms and even a few private limited companies have been using Zepo to sell their products online from the manufacturing segment.

Over the years, we have made significant enhancements to our platform that has benefited our customers, and has helped in deepening their engagement with us. By leveraging technology, we started off by providing a very simple and easy way to put and sell products online. We then entered into strategic alliances with logistics firms and payment gateway companies that made it easier for our customers to avail all these services from one place, through a single click of a button.

Prior to this, all small businesses had to go searching for courier firms that would accept to ship their packages. Very few courier companies would accept to ship in small quantities. Similarly, due to high payment gateway charges, one had to price their products artificially high to breakeven. Now, we launched a products as a value-add to Zepo, calling it ZePOST, we offer free pick up and delivery service that makes it so convenient to our customers to focus only on their core activity and leave mechanics of order receiving and delivery, payment collection and other things for us to manage.

On a different note, how have you organized your internal operations to support these activities? Could you provide us some insight on these aspects? 

For us, an unwavering focus on user experience, refinement of our offering and user acquisition has helped us scale and grow so fast in the past couple of years. We invest a lot of time in understanding how the user experiences our site. By thorough research and analysis, we identify the places where the user is experiencing problems, or is spending more time to finish an intended transaction/activity. We prioritize these and fix them at the earliest. On the product offering refinements, we have introduced new things almost every quarter – which has further benefited our customers, including revision of pricing to suit particular needs. This has helped in customer acquisition as well.

Further, on the user acquisition front, we have tried very innovative ways to get new customers and have a fair share of successes. We do a lot of campaigns – one of them – chotuchaiwala.com was a big hit, we leveraged social media to reach out to prospective customers, also do some inbound marketing to targeted set of prospects. We also did some very different things such as putting our tagline and company information on big carry bags that retailers use for transporting goods. This automatically provided visibility of our offering to many distributors leading to more customers. The most recent attempt was to use twitter to promote our offering – and we became the third most trending handle for all of India for almost 11 hours straight!

Thank you for those valuable insights. In closing, what would be the three things that you would like to share as key priorities a product entrepreneur should have, when they focus on the India market?

In my opinion, a differentiated product which provides a satisfying user experience, a focus on user acquisition to sustain and scale your company and superior customer service are the three things that every entrepreneur should focus, irrespective of the target market that they focus on. I believe these aspects will provide you happy customers, satisfied employees and good business success!

workXmate – A cloud based ERP and On Demand SaaS App ecosystem for SMEs

workXmate LogoProduct Nation interviewed Kamal Mansharamani and Atul Bhatia, founders of workXmate – a cloud based ERP & CRM solution designed for SMEs. During the discussion, they share their insights on how technology and external environment changes are creating favorable opportunities for tech entrepreneurs to offer products to the market. Read on…

Can you tell us about your background and motivation to start workXmate?

Kamal Mansharamani, Co-Founder, workXmate

Both Atul and I have been in the software product and services industry for over 2 decades now. We were part of the senior leadership team at DCM – one of the earliest product companies operating out of India. After our stints at DCM each of us has dabbled in to starting our ventures. Atul set up nSys which was a niche player in the verification IP and chip design space. nSys became a market leader within a short span of time, which led to its acquisition by Synopsys. I joined Birlasoft’s leadership team and led its transformation from a 400 member team to about 5000 people over a 7 year span. Post that, I started a startup AlmaMate Info Tech that focused on making graduates employable. I gained great experience running it.

A couple of years ago, we scanned the marketplace searching the next big opportunity that we could work up on. We converged on the resource planning and automation space for SMBs as the segment to target. This was driven by two factors; one by our own past experiences where we faced difficulties to chose the right ERP tool for our startups and second – the technology and globalization changes that are affecting the SMBs. Both of these convinced us that we should provide a practical and effective solution in this space – and this led to setting up of workXmate Technologies.

Could you elaborate a bit more on how the technology and globalization changes are affecting SMBs, and how does your product help SMBs to deal with these? 

Atul Bhatia, Co-Founder, workXmate

Cloud as a technology change has a huge impact on SMB sector world wide. Due to provision of computing services with no upfront investment, it is most attractive to cash strapped SMBs. Also due to the maturity and acceptance of Cloud, most SMBs are now looking to leverage this disruption to their advantage. On a different note, due to liberalization of Indian economy and the proliferation of Internet in India, SMBs operating out of India now have to compete with global players. This has forced them to consider efficiency enhancing solutions.

Our product helps customers to leverage the benefits of cloud based deployment. However, the key differentiator from competition is that our product actually integrates functionality of all point solutions which SMBs use across different departments and offers the same capabilities at affordable costs. Usually, we find most customers managing all their work processes using Tally and excel sheets. workXmate has Apps like CRM, HCM, Project Management, Inventory, Knowledge Management and Intranet seamlessly integrated and working on a single database with a single login. Due to the globalization pressures, as SMEs look to optimize their work activities, our product becomes a compelling proposition.

Great insights! How has your experience been, selling to the initial set of customers and what learning have you had thus far?

We have got off to a very good start, clocking about 25 customers in our first quarter since we formally launched our product. We also have about 50 more customers in the pipeline. The quick ramp up of customers for the product is a good validation of the value that our product provides to our customers. Secondly, it also validates our business model of targeting the services based companies to begin with. We are able to convert most of our leads to paying customers due to our deep understanding and prior experience in services sector. Also, due to the nature of work in the services sector, these segments of customers tend to be more tech-savvy and need to adapt to new technology solutions at a faster pace.

We also realize that all customer acquisition cannot be organic. Hence we are actively looking out for partners and alliances to help proliferate our offerings to the wider market.

Good to hear about your increasing customer base… What are your future plans for the product and the company?

We first want to establish ourselves firmly as the vendor of choice for the Indian SMB customer segment. The next logical step for us is to start selling in International markets. We are studying about the changes we need to make to suit or incorporate geography specific practices in to our product. We expect to target all English speaking countries as part of the first phase of selling abroad.

Excellent! In closing, would you like to provide your thoughts to fellow product entrepreneurs operating out of India?

As product entrepreneurs operating out of India, we believe that these are very exciting times for us. We have a great opportunity to build truly global products, thanks to the globalization and advent of new technologies which provide a level playing ground to entrepreneurs across the world. We would like to be the enabler of success to thousands of small businesses and start-ups as they embark on leading our country to further prosperity.

‘Customers buy your product does not mean they will use it!’ – Kishore Mandyam, Founder and CEO, PK4 Technologies

ProductNation interviewed Kishore Mandyam, Founder and CEO of PK4 Technologies, the company that owns the Impel CRM offerings. During this interview, Kishore shares some of his experiences in creating a product suited for Indian customers, and discusses his learning from dealing with customers and technological developments. Read on…

What was the motivation to start Impel?

There were a couple of factors that came together in influencing creation of Impel. During 2006-07 timeline, after having successful career and managing different aspects of business around the world, I was looking at what could be the next big challenge to take on. Frequent travels to different parts of the globe also had started to become taxing. The domestic market was showing encouraging signs of robust demand for product based solutions. All these factors influenced in we taking the decision to set up Impel, a product company based out of India.

Impel Home page screen shot

What were your experiences during the initial years of operation and what was the learning? 

As we setup Impel, we converged on the CRM area as our focus to provide solutions, since we understood that many customers in the target segment that we were aiming were not very organized in dealing with Sales leads and customer centric operations. We invested our initial 18 months to build the product and made it available for customers by 2009. Given our previous corporate experience, we initially started leveraging the state of the art marketing and selling techniques and were able to land about 120 customers during the first year of operations.

However, the biggest learning came next year, when we could not retain most of these customers. When we analyzed what went wrong, we discovered that our method of signing in customers using web based sales ensured that customers bought the product – but just purchasing the product did not mean that they would use it. It turned out that most customers had not tried the various features and capabilities of our product offering and hence were skeptical to renew the relationship with us for the next year.

As an organization, how did you respond to this learning and what new measures did you take to overcome these limitations? 

We all gathered back at the drawing board, analyzed the developments and worked on how we could enhance our offering to ensure more usage and hence more engagement from the customers. We further segmented our target customer base, identified the key sub-segments that showed more promise and started working closely with leads from that bucket. During 2011 and 2012 we got very good traction from lifestyle businesses and rural businesses that focused on selling and marketing seeds, solar lamps, pesticides, FMCG and so on. The targeted and focused engagement with this sub-segment yielded very good results for us, and by 2013, we had about 120 to 130 stable customers.

During the same year, based on our experiences thus far, we shifted our focus to engage with mid size companies and fast growing small companies. This shift in focus helped us to increase our profitability and ensured diversification into another segment of customers.

What are your observations on the Indian market based on your dealing with them over these years?

The Indian small and medium companies have many challenges for which they desire solutions. However, they currently are unable to articulate their problems and explain the desired solutions to the vendors who approach them. On the other end, if any vendor is able to identify these gaps in their operations, clearly articulate the pain points and propose a technology based solution that adds value / solves their pain points, the customers will lap it up.

In our own case, we started off with a CRM offering – we wanted to be the Salesforce for India. However, as we listened to our customers, we discovered that they were buying our software to solve a variety of problems around the CRM domain of which we had no initial knowledge of. This interaction made us tweak our offerings based on their feedback.

Secondly, the perception of Indian customers about cloud has drastically changed since the past 5 years. Customers now accept cloud as an alternative and secure medium of deployment. They realize that it provides them certain benefits than the traditional modes of deployment. This development, combined with the rapid acceptance of mobile and smart phones in the Indian ecosystem is creating a market of significant size that are willing to look at mobile and cloud based solutions to solve their challenges.

What are some of the areas which you wish you could have executed better on?

Being a bootstrapped startup, one needs to always prioritize on the areas that need the focus and attention to attain growth. Having said that, as I reflect back, there are a few things that I think we could have executed better. One of them is about the trial process we have to let our prospective customers try out our offerings. We notice that despite our best efforts, we were not able to better engage our prospects in ensuring their conversion.

While the above one was on pre-sales, I also think we needed to do one thing better – on providing better documentation of our product, on the post-sales and support side. I notice that a few startups in India have been very good in this regard – and they have good customer retention and lesser support costs on account of this. I think that if we can simplify the usage of the product to the end user, and support the end user with description of how to use different features of the product; this combination will help in long term sustainability for our company.

Interesting insights! In closing, what are the three things that you would like to share with your fellow entrepreneurs who are targeting the Indian market?

I think we are at very interesting times as regards to targeting the Indian customers with our technology solutions. The first thing I want to let other entrepreneurs know is that the average Indian manager is much more willing to engage and evaluate your technology offerings. This is a very encouraging sign for all entrepreneurs. Secondly, mobility as a technology development is a big disruptive force, especially in the emerging markets. Hence, plan to leverage the power of mobility in all your solutions and that will surely delight your customers. Lastly, Indian customers take really long cycles to decide to buy. Continuously engage with them through marketing and other touch points, even when you may have ruled out immediate purchase in this quarter. If the customer is engaged, he will simply come back to you when he decides to buy and will close the deal in a day!

Earning a rupee in India is more difficult than earning a dollar in US! – Kumar Vembu, Founder and CEO, GoFrugal Technologies

ProductNation interviewed Kumar Vembu, Founder and CEO of GoFrugal Technologies. In a candid conversation, Kumar shares his experiences of dealing with Indian retail market and shares key mantras for succeeding in the Indian market. Read on…

Could you explain the rationale behind venturing into the Indian retail space through GoFrugal?

I started GoFrugal during the late 2004, inspired by the thought of solving problems local to India. At that time, my brothers and I were doing well with our other entrepreneurial venture – Zoho. We were primarily focusing on selling to US and European markets. However, an interview that I watched on NDTV with Bill Gates and Narayana Murthy, seeded my initial thoughts to focus on solving India-centric problems, specifically in the area of retail sector.

I distinctly remember Bill Gates lamenting about entrepreneurs not focusing on solving locally relevant problems. Having studied and worked at IIT Madras under Prof. Ashok Jhunjunwala and Prof. Bhaskar Ramamurthy, I thought that I had the right skills and expertise to delve into one of the most promising areas in the Indian market. This was my inspiration behind starting GoFrugal Technologies.

Interesting! What were the initial challenges you faced as you were setting up GoFrugal? What did you learn from them?

In the initial days of GoFrugal, I was quick to realize that I had not done adequate research in understanding the market dynamics. I probably got carried away by the size of the oppurtunity at initial iterations. I was of the opinion that if there was a good product that I could provide to retail customers, they would buy it. However, I soon discovered that many retailers had very little time or interest to evaluate my offerings, and even for those who had the time, they were unable to judge the value of the offering. I realized that most retailers made their buying decisions based on prior relationships or through references. Hence, I had to make drastic changes in plans to take into account these market realities.

I learnt that retail practices in India are different for every 100 kilometers, primarily because there are different clusters/communities that conduct businesses in very different ways, especially in terms of procuring and running their retail outlets. I also discovered that retailers were not open to adapt industry-wide best practices. They were more comfortable to consider automating their existing processes, even when we told them about better ways to manage those activities. All these early experiences led me to quickly reconfigure the entire process and goals at GoFrugal.

These are very vital insights. What factors do you think gave rise to this kind of buying/evaluating behavior in the Indian retailer? What are your ideas to improve the environment?

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I can think of few key reasons that, in my view, caused such changes in thought process in the Indian ecosystem. Firstly, most of the retail entrepreneurs were self made, were forced into this business due to external factors and possibly did not have any formal training. Hence, they had their own view of how to run their operations. Most retailers did not see, that focusing on best practices could be a competitive advantage. Usually, you would find them thinking for short term.

Secondly, for those people who understood the relevance of differentiation, I found that they did not trust the software solution vendors. This is because many vendors could not profitably serve the demands of the customer due to lack of ecosystem and encouragement from the Indian market. Also, vendor refusal to address customization requests from customers, left the latter in a fix.

To tackle these two key issues, I think that market awareness and education is required. The high entry-barrier for software vendors approaching customers should effectively be lowered by creating bridges of trust and relationship. Apart from this, we also need to make the retailers understand the need to upgrade, in order to effectively tackle the onslaught of globalization.

Could you explain what specific interventions you did to enable GoFrugal to emerge as one of the leaders in this space, overcoming the challenges that you outlined earlier?

At GoFrugal, when we started, I was planning for a hyper growth strategy – driven by large-scale customer acquisition plans. However, when we understood the intricacies of market, we pivoted and expanded at a much slower pace than what was initially planned, but with more and more happier and repeat customers. Our current focus is to provide continuous improvements to our offerings on an iterative basis to ensure customer delight and retention. We also have standardized all of our internal processes across product licensing, support, development practices etc. This has helped us move forward and absorb such marketplace changes as in technology and customer expectations.

There was also a particular focus to make all functional teams agile, to be able to take inputs and change processes very swiftly to meet the external changes. This also meant that most of the existing team had to be trained in these new processes. I hired a lot of new talent who helped in leading this transformation internally.

Apart from these internal alignments, I also saw that the external environment was in favor of companies such as ours. I now see signs that the market is looking for more credible vendors, and that customers are warming up to the concept that the best products would win and are worthy of use. With more clarity on regulations from the Government, many opportunities will open up for vendors such as ours. Overall, due to the actions we have taken over the past decade, and the emerging external environment, we seem to be in a very good position to leverage the upside and do well.

Thank you for these insights. As a parting question, what message would you like to provide to tech entrepreneurs who focus on India as a market?

I can recollect a few aspects that every entrepreneur should not forget as s/he builds their enterprise. The most pivotal input is never to be complacent on any aspect of your business. Complacency is your worst enemy. What you have now will never be good enough for tomorrow – and hence always think of ways in which improvements could be made to your business. Next one is to focus on hiring quality people, especially if you are in the retailers’ growth/scaling out stage. This is absolutely crucial for the success of your company.

Lastly, on the market side, realize that adoption of IT based solution is very slow in the Indian market. Be prepared for a long haul. Do not have excess fat in any functional area of your enterprise. Always remember that earning a rupee is more difficult than earning a dollar!

A Cloud telephony startup, VoiceTree- “Bootstrapped”, “Profitable”, “Still growing”

Indian economy is a cluster of more than 30 million small and medium businesses along with large enterprises which are lesser in number. Majorly, these SME’s powers the growth of Indian business industry.

This large SME pool presents a lucrative opportunity for Indian product and service companies only if one is able to tap it.

One such company which is creating a presence among Indian SME domain is “VoiceTree”. The cloud telephony startup, offers business call management solution with an Integrated IVR under its flagship product MyOperator and an automated order confirmation system on the cloud facility through its initial product, CODAC.

Team VoiceTree

Breakthrough

The startup was founded in 2010, though it was only in this March that things took a major turn for the company, in a positive way.It was the launch of  MyOperator, which subsequently became its most selling product.The product helped the cloud telephony startup, to scale up to more than 300 customers from 10 in a period of less than 8 months.

With MyOperator, VoiceTree targeted the large SME sector, mostly businesses which have an offline presence, though it also found a niche segment in the ecommerce industry.

In fact, the customers of MyOperator hails from various industry verticals, be it offline businesses like Berger Paints, political party like Aam Aadmi Party, religious groups such as Art of Living or ecommerce stores like Flaberry.

Other product by the startup, CODAC, targets enterprise sector and bags Snapdeal.com, Lenskart.com and many other as its clients.

Where MyOperator is  a call management and tracking system on the top of an IVR, CODAC is more of an order confirmation system on the cloud.

Bootstrapped and Profitable

Though various other cloud telephony players existed in the market before VoiceTree, still the Delhi based startup was able to strengthen its position, now turning profitable with a team of more than 40.

“Effective marketing and customer acquisition strategy has a played a big role for us”, says Ankit Jain, Founder, VoiceTree.

Though our price is on a higher side in comparison to our competitors, but enhanced product features and the product design which suited the Indian SME’s has been the key factor for our whatsoever success so far. Small and medium  businesses in India are not so much comfortable with Internet and concepts of cloud or SaaS, they just know about their business. We designed the product for them, with features they can easily grasp, while they focused on their business and daily routines, adds Jain.

The future of the startup looks bright as now it plans to go global and launch more features in its existing product, MyOperator. Also there are more products which are in the development stage which once launched, will help the company to expand its offerings for more business verticals.

Though journey so far has been very exciting and we did it while bootstrapping but now its time when we are looking to raise some capital for executing our more ambitious and larger goals, signs off Ankit.

Complementary skills in your founding team is critical for a startup’s success – CSN Murthy, Founder and CEO, Ozonetel

ProductNation interviewed CSN Murthy, Founder and CEO of Ozonetel, a leader in cloud telephony based solutions. In this freewheeling chat, Murthy, a serial entrepreneur, shares his mantras on building a successful technology based venture. Read on…

What was the motivation to start Ozonetel? 

OzoneAround 2007, after the successful exit from Intoto, we examined various opportunities in the marketplace to start a new venture. Having worked in the telecommunications space over two decades, we recognized a huge unmet need in the Indian marketplace in the area of usage of telephony by businesses. Businesses were losing out on vital customer leads and important information due to their reliance on traditional telephony based system.  We therefore setup Ozonetel during 2007-08 to solve the customers communication based challenges through cloud based telephony solutions.

Can you explain the rationale behind using cloud as a delivery mechanism of communication products/services to Indian customers?

Cloud based telephony solutions is a natural progression from the previous physical PBX solutions. On the technology front, cloud based solutions help overcome the existing limitations of telephony solutions such as missing an inbound enquiry from a prospective customer. It provides tools to track your efficiency in responding to customers. Businesses can scale quickly based on the volume of customers they deal with on a pay-as-you go basis. Thirdly, since the workforce of businesses has increasingly become mobile, a cloud based telephony solution enables a business to respond to customers without being bogged down by physical location based constraints. These and many more aspects provide unprecedented value to businesses to solve their communication challenges. So, we started offering these cloud based telephony solutions to the Indian market.

How did you get your initial set of customers? What learning did you obtain from dealing with them?

We targeted the segment of customers who were willing to experiment with our offering. The first version of our offering required significant technical expertise at the customer end to use and benefit from it. Luckily for us, our first sets of customers were mostly technology based startups who understood the value of our solution. Companies like ZipDial and Asklaila used the APIs that we provided and integrated them in the manner they preferred. Grameen Foundation, another early customer of ours took help from ThoughtWorks to integrate our solution with their other systems. We also learnt from our initial prospecting that cost was an important parameter for businesses in India.

How did the company evolve from the first offering to its current state, where it has diversified cloud product offerings? 

home_kookooAfter finding initial customer acceptance, we quickly realized that in order to scale our business and make it usable across different sectors, it was important to make our solution more consumable and usable by end customers. Towards this end, our first solution was to announce KooKoo – a telephony platform that allowed end customers to build their own applications either on voice, SMS or fax. We then further enhanced our portfolio with Bizphone – a virtual PBX solution on cloud which customers could use out of the box, with no set up costs and hardware investments. The Bizphone offering helped us cater to needs of diverse set of customers across different sectors. Based on our insight and customer feedback, we enhanced our product portfolio by introducing CloudAgent – our cloud based contact center solution for businesses that are slightly more sophisticated business communication requirements. The growth of business in India augured well for us and we now offer these solutions to businesses of all sizes and sectors.

How have you ensured that you have competitive advantage in the marketplace? 

We had the first mover advantage when we started – which helped us to garner the initial set of customers. However, as the marketplace started seeing benefits of cloud based telecommunication solutions, new competitors emerged. Having been in this domain for a fairly long time, we had envisioned this scenario – and have developed key differentiating strategies right from our inception.

Back in 2007, when we started, we could easily have integrated a solution from different vendors and provide the same to businesses to satisfy their immediate needs. We instead chose to develop the entire solution stack – right from the hardware, telecom cards and software on our own. Though this took us about 18 months, this approach helps us in minimizing our dependency on external software/hardware/technology vendors. We also are in a very good position to incorporate customer feedback on to our solution stack – since we have total control on all layers of the solution. This approach has helped us to innovate constantly and maintain an edge over the competition.

Another complementary strategy we have executed in the recent years is to ensure customer stickiness. We have constantly delighted customers with superior service and helped them scale effortlessly as their businesses have grown. Thus, many of our initial customers have now migrated from using the low-value virtual PBX solution to leveraging our high value cloud contact centre solution. This approach has helped us both retain our existing customers, as well as ensured that we earn more working with them.

What internal measures have you taken to ensure that Ozonetel retains its edge in the marketplace? 

From an operational perspective, we have ensured that the Organization has the best leaders in every functional area. Our founding team is a great mix of complementary capabilities that are required to drive excellence across all aspects of the company. Getting to specifics, on the Sales front, we have presence now in many cities. This helps in building and sustaining relationships with customers. We realized very early that physical presence is important to close a sale. Hence we took steps to ensure we were physically accessible to customer.

On the development and R&D front, given that we are a technology based company, we have a maniacal focus on developing the best solution using the latest technological developments in our domain. We have effectively used our prior working experience to provide superior post-sales support to our customers. We take customer care very seriously – and it also is one of our key differentiators from competition, due to our superior execution and empathy for customers. All these have ensured that Ozonetel as an Organization responds nimbly to external environmental changes.

On a related note, how important it is to have a good founding team? What characteristics of the top management team in your experience will enable success of the firm, especially in its formative years? 

It is absolutely critical to have leaders with complementary skills in the top management team. It is also equally important that there is good chemistry between the founding team members. Once you have the above combination in place, you will automatically be geared to deal with the uncertainties and ambiguities that confront a nascent organization. In our case, I have been very careful in signing on our founding team and the top management team. I recommend that one closely work and observe the working style of any prospective founding partner that they want to bring on board. This helps in validating the nature of contributions that the person will bring in, as well as help understand if the person gels well with the rest of team members.

Another thing that I have realized from working across multiple ventures – is to recruit your sales leader up front – right from a very initial stage. This helps in enabling the Organization to grow rapidly at later stages. The Sales leader understands the other functional units of the company better due to the fact that they worked together in the initial stages. This bonding helps immensely as the company grows.

Thank you for your insights. As a parting question, what would be the top three things that you would advice to your fellow product entrepreneurs operating out of India? 

As I reiterated, starting off with the right set of founding team members – in terms of complementary skills and good teaming is very critical to any enterprise, more specifically for a technology product based company. Secondly, as the founder, ensure that you hire right for the Organization. Do not compromise on skills or on any other aspects that affects the culture of the company. Thirdly, as many others would tell you, keep your ears close to the customer. Constantly delight them and seek to improve continuously. Success will surely follow!

‘Ensure that your product delivers more value than what customers expect out of it’ – Shaudhan Desai, Founder and CEO, D’Soft Infotech

In a reflection of his journey spanning 25 years, Shaudhan Desai, Founder and CEO of D’Soft Infotech Pvt Ltd., makers of India’s leading Jewelery software shares his experiences in building the company during the license-raj era, and the changes he has seen in the business of recent times. Read on… 

You are celebrating 25 years of operations at D’Soft.  It is indeed a great milestone for an Indian products based company. Can you share with us how you started on this path? 

I was working with GE Medical Systems in their marketing division around that time. The use of computers by western countries during that decade made me realize that computers could help automation of routine tasks, even in India. This was the trigger to set up a company in India. The plan was to leverage computers and help data processing forms and share forms be processed quicker than the manual process. This is how we began our company during 1988.

Starting a software company during that time should have been a very daunting task. Can you share your experiences as you worked on establishing the company?

You are right. There were many issues that had to be taken care of. To begin with, there was no computer dealer in our region. Cost of procurement of one computer itself was very high – and that too for one with a 4.77 MHz processor. Secondly, there was no skilled labor available who understood how to operate computers, the punched cards etc that was the key to execute our plan. Thirdly, you had to deal with skeptic customers who resisted any change to their existing way of doing things. Overcoming all these were quite a challenge during our initial years.

How did you overcome these challenges? What was the first success you tasted as a company?

The first real success, in my view came to us during the years 1993-95, when we designed, developed and sold an accounting software package in Gujarati language. This was triggered by an advertisement from CDAC about a multilingual card which could be inserted in the computer. Based on this idea, we developed the basic tenets of accounting which would work in Gujarati language. We targeted professional accountants who would go to every shop and write accounts. These accountants realized that they could scale their business (as in, they could attend to more customers) by using our package – since it standardized all entries and made it easy for them to provide the final computations. A few others realized that they could save themselves from doing mundane and repetitive work, and hence bought on to this new offering. In all, this offering got good traction with the segment we targeted. Even today, while we don’t sell this offering too actively, we still have about 5000 to 6000 active users of this software.

Very interesting… How did you engage with customers back then, and what changes do you see now, after 25 years? 

During our initial years, to gain access to prospective customers, we relied initially on our personal networks – reaching out to accountants who maintained books at shops of our acquaintances. When we saw initial successful adoption, we resorted to making ourselves present in the seminars, specifically held for accountants. This helped us reach to all parts of the state. Now of course, with internet and other technological advances, we use all the modern methods of gaining access to potential customers.

Back then, the awareness of our customers in using the package was very low, and the expectations out of the software package also were limited. During the initial years, we had to even provide a guarantee to buy back hardware, if the customer decided to stop using our software. We had to print bound manuals and ship it for every customer – as a means of support, since no other reliable method of communication existed. Even if a customer had some feedback or a requirement, we would implement the same in the next version of our package; release it after 6 to 8 months since his request.

Fast forwarding these to now, the expectations of customers from a software product have grown tremendously. While our initial versions were on Foxbase and DOS based, we now ship products that are accessible on any device (computer, cell phone, tablet etc). Our product updates now come in 2 to 3 week cycles. Internet has helped us to support our customers better, and in real time. However, what has not changed is the reason customers buy a product. No customer will be willing to buy the product unless it delivers value to his/her business.

How did your flagship product – Ornate Jewelery Software come to be? Can you share us the making of the product and its current state?

A few factors led us to discover and develop on this opportunity to serve jewelers with our offering. A lot of our existing customers of our accounting package used to maintain books with jewelers. So, in discussion with accountants, and further probing, we discovered that jewelers’ operational lifecycle was very different than the ones followed in a typical industry. We also noted that there was no specific software available worldwide that would help jewelers benefit from automation. Hence, we designed and developed the first version of Ornate Jewelery Software during 1998 to 2002, and then subsequently have revised it many times thus far.

Our initial clients were retail jewelers, and even now, a large chunk of our 3000 odd customers are small and mid size jewelers. Since this was a segment that was largely underserved, we are able to attain leadership position in this segment within a decade. Right now, our focus has been to enhance our leadership in this domain. We now have introduced a disruptive offering – ‘Jewelery Kiosk’, through which one can virtually Try / digitally wear different ornaments or combinations and make a purchase decision. This patent pending offering has helped large jewelery houses to reduce customer churn and increase sales on account of our offering. Through our offering, customers of any large chain of showrooms can go to one retail outlet of theirs and virtually Try out all the jewelery available across any of their chain of establishments across the world.

As you look back, are there any opportunities that you felt you could not capitalize on effectively? 

The only aspect that I feel we should have addressed earlier is to focus on international customers. We now have customers from UAE and US. However, I feel that we neglected a bigger opportunity, given the needs of jewelers worldwide are similar. Having said that, with so much of traction and customers behind us, I believe we now are in the best position to make our presence in the worldwide markets. This shall be one of our key priorities going forward.

As a parting thought, what advice would you like to provide to fellow product entrepreneurs operating out of India?

First and foremost, I would say that you should continuously ensure that your customers are happy and satisfied. Irrespective of whether a customer’s business with you is small or big, ensure that you serve their needs. This is a key prerequisite for growth. Every customer is very important and we must satisfy them.

Secondly, ensure that your product really delivers more value that what customers expect out of it. This will help you to sustain your competitive advantage. Good luck!

‘Making Readily Available Useful, Robust, Easy-to-use & Affordable Software Products for Millions’– the NRich story

ProductNation interviewed Badrinarayanan V S (Badri), Founder of NRich Software. In this discussion, he explains how he was able to build a sustainable business by focusing on solving simple everyday problems of the commoner. Read on…

NRich seems to have more than a decade of experience in offering products and consulting services targeted to Indian customers. Can you tell us about how it all started?

As I gained professional experience working at different software companies in India such as Wipro, Polaris, Kumaran Software and Cybertech, I noticed that none of these companies prioritized software products as their engine for growth. Large part of their portfolio and revenue realization aspects relied on services. To me, this was a disturbing thought, since I was convinced that products based strategy would actually benefit a firm in the long term. This led me to establish NRich software

My initial thoughts were to try and understand why software products did not sell in India. I was puzzled that although there were many software products in the accounting space, Tally ruled and others weren’t even being noticed. This sparked a detailed research and analysis which pointed to the lack of market-readiness amongst most product vendors in India.

Out of this research was born NRich*Scan, a consulting service that helped diagnose and assess the state of Market Readiness of software products based on 51 critical parameters over the Ideation, Development and Sales & Marketing Phases.  Through a series of questions, I would finally arrive at a score that would indicate the areas where the product was strong and areas that one needed to focus on to achieve market success.

How did your first offering fare in the marketplace? What experience did you gain through this? 

Given that the concept of market readiness itself was new, there was high resistance amongst large companies towards NRich*Scan. Surprisingly, entrepreneurs were very receptive to NRich*Scan because they were committed to the success of their products.  We worked with products across different domains such as Resume Management, Correspondence Management , Jewellery Design, ERP for Process industries, Carnatic Music Tutor etc.  Some of our customers saved a lot of cash that would have otherwise gone towards selling an unready product and some even addressed the failings befor re-launching their products.

While it was easy to develop a product, most founders found selling it very tough because their sales people were inadequately skilled and equipped.  I created a specialized training program for selling software products called ExSell.  Seeing the struggle in selling Hospital Information System (HIS) packages, I have recently launched a special edition of ExSell for HIS.

When and how did your first software product come out from NRich? What factors led to its creation? 

From my consulting services, I clearly understood that to design, develop and sell a software product, one need not be a domain expert. Since I had started my analysis of product readiness in the accounting/finance area, I had noticed that not only the businesses, but individuals also needed to be fiscally prudent to manage their expenses. I noticed that no tool existed for this segment and hence developed a simple and easy to use product that would help individuals manage their personal finances powerfully. By the time this product was in the market, Outlook group of magazines were rechristening their personal finance magazine as Outlook Money. They were impressed with our product and ordered 3000 licenses, which they decided to gift to their subscribers. This was a great validation of our product and helped us get traction in the marketplace. Based on this, we created a much more robust product ‘Enrich’ that offered more benefits.

What marketing efforts did you undertake to penetrate the market?

Since we clearly identified that the success of our product required a shift in attitude and behavioral aspects of individuals, we zeroed in on advertising in personal finance magazines. This was largely because we figured out those who buy or read these magazines are concerned about their money and hence would find our offering attractive.  We talked about their lives and their issues by not managing their money powerfully and positioned Enrich as a solution to their problems.  We were amazed at the response we got.  People from all over the country including small towns and villages, readily paid money into our bank account or ordered via VPP (the India Post option of Cash on Delivery) just on the basis of our empathetic ads.

How did the transition from offering personal finance product to a healthcare offering happen?

With the success of our personal finance product, we realized that consumers were willing to look at software products to help them manage their lives and that inspired us to address the health care especially chronic disease management.  We clearly observed that just as how people were careless in managing money, they were equally casual about their health. It was not that they were neglecting their health, but many other things occupied their minds which made them attending to regular tests or attend reviews a low priority.

We also observed that the approach by patients and doctors towards chronic diseases was callous. Most patients would file their test results and prescriptions and forget and the doctors would probably look just at the latest result for diagnosis and treatment. In this process, vital information about the history of the patient over time was being missed out.

To make a difference in this scenario, we conceptualized and implemented Diasof (www.diasof.com) an online service that helps diabetic patients to be Healthier Anywhere, Anytime.  DiaSof helps the users share their analyzed medical history with their doctors either online or via a hard copy and also remind them via email and sms to take their tests in time and meet their doctor as scheduled. Further, they would be able to access their own records from anywhere using their mobile phones or tablets, which could be invaluable whilst travel and in cases of emergency.

How did your customers receive the new product? What challenges and successes you have had selling this to your target segment? 

Although we tried reaching Diabetic patients through pharmacies and diagnostic labs, we found that their receptivity and willingness was maximum when their doctor recommended DiaSof.

We were fortunate to find a very patient-responsive and forward looking supporter in Dr Vijay Viswanathan, an eminent Diabetologist and the MD of MV Diabetic Hospital in Chennai.  Together, we have made DiaSof available to many Diabetic patients from all over the country and the numbers are increasing at a rapid pace.  The response from many senior diabetologists and endocrinologists is also very encouraging.  Our goal is to Save A Million Diabetic Lives By End Of 2015.

We are in the process of signing up more hospitals and physicians and replicate this model across major towns and cities in India in the months to come.

Upon observing your offerings thus far, I notice that you are focused on solving the often overlooked and very minor problems that people may face. How does this approach help you succeed or differentiate with others – and is this mode sustainable for a company? 

It is my belief that a software product is successful when it is simple and extremely easy to use besides being affordable. Hence, at NRich, we are maniacally focused on delivering lean software solutions so that our users can realize the value quickly.  We add facilities only when we are doubly sure that they will add value.  We recently added a facility for the users to upload their photograph into their DiaSof account, not for cosmetic purposes but because doctors will be able to recognize their patient’s face better than by name.

Although the framework of DiaSof can be applied for any chronic disease without much modifications, we have consciously kept the focus on Diabetes.  We have, for example,  developed a product that addresses Thyroid management but we will launch it only when DiaSof reaches a critical installation base.

From your experience, what are the key aspects one should focus on when building a product based business in India? What needs to be kept in mind if one needs to sell to Indian customers? 

Firstly, one should identify the target customer segment, in a way that it is not too narrow (in which case you cannot scale) nor too broad (which makes focus virtually impossible). This is absolutely critical. Once this is done, there must be high clarity on the pain points of this segment and how your product solves those pain points.

Keeping Data Theft Prevention Simple & Green!

Zarir M. Karbhari is the Chief Architect of CopyNotify! & Founder of CygNET Systems Pvt. Ltd shares his journey of diversifying a outsourced programming services company into a software product company. The company was founded in 1995 with a focus of offering hi-tech outsourced programming services for companies based all over the world. The company maintained this hi-tech niche by ensuring that most of its projects involved network programming, communication protocols and device driver development for various operating systems.

Decision to diversify to product development — What factors contributed to this?

Based on inherent in house expertise and experience of over 100,000 programming hours in the field of application development, networking, security and communications, a strategic decision was made by CygNET Systems Pvt. Ltd. in 2007 to move up the ‘value’ ecosystem and develop a network security software product which catered to the needs of the small business user which was at that point a perceived need of the hour.

Explain the journey of evolving your core product. What aspects and feedback were important in this process?

Security against data theft of source code was becoming paramount in the outsourced programming industry in India and many nightmarish stories of how data was being copied in an unauthorized manner and without detection via USB flash drives were beginning to surface. So theft via USB became the initial ‘problem to solve ‘. Instead of searching the web for similar
anti data theft products and cloning them, the engineers at CygNET Systems Pvt. Ltd took the route of talking to system administrators & small business owners and created a vision specification for CopyNotify based on their feedback.

The company had identified a problem, spoken in detail to those who were facing the problem and then went on to design a software product to solve the problem. From a simple beginning of just detecting the insertion of USB Flash Drives, the product soon evolved into a full fledged Data Security Software for small office networks.

Can you share details about your products.

CygNET Systems currently has released 3 products.

1. CopyNotify! (Data Protection that went GREEN)

CopyNotify! is an entry level data protection software designed specially for the small business / SOHO networks. The software deploys anti data theft measures for computers on the office network by disabling the copying of data to external USB drives and Smart Phones, blocking internet connectivity via portable modems / data cards as well as restricting browser based uploads of data.

The software monitors user logon activities such as privilege levels, remote logons and invalid logons. Software installs and un-installs on the network are logged as well as rogue devices attempting to access network resources can also be detected.

CopyNotify! goes GREEN in data protection by also offering electricity saving features such as switching off IDLE machines and the auto shutdown of computers after office hours.

2. Insta-LockDown ( Data Protection at a Key Stroke )

The personal edition of CopyNotify! is called Insta-LockDown. It has been designed for single computers / laptops and locks down the copying of data with a simple keystroke combination.

Insta-LockDown restricts the copying of data through various routinely used data channels such as the internet, file attachments, removable USB devices and Bluetooth transfer to smart phones and comes in handy when single PCs are used by multiple users and protection of confidential data is a concern. It also plays a protective role against data theft when administrative privileges are granted to multiple users of the same PC or the admin password has been inadvertently compromised.

3. GreenNotify! (Energy Saver Software)

GreenNotify is an energy conservation software that reduces electricity bills of small businesses by automatically switching off computers that are not being used and shutting down computers automatically after office hours.

Your views on how your offering is differentiated in the market / Competitive advantage you have over others in the same space. Your plan of achieving success in a crowded and mature marketplace.

During this endeavor of developing a security software, CygNET Systems Pvt. Ltd in its strategy never tried to compare or clone its software with those released by its perceived competitors. A data security need had been perceived and the requirement of simplicity of acquisition, cost and expertise for Indian conditions had to be addressed.

In today’s digital world, protection from data theft is crucial and soon will become a ‘must’. However for small business users, the prohibitive acquisition costs of sophisticated Data Loss Prevention software and the level of IT expertise required at times results in data security being ignored all together. Also more often than not, the DLP software is an overkill in terms of ‘cost versus capability’ for small organizations due to non suitability of all available software features.

With CopyNotify! and its affiliated products, data protection software is made as easily available and affordable as a ‘wada pav’. A ‘wada pav’ is a popular spicy fast food native to Maharashtra. It is filling, inexpensive and caters to the masses.

Keeping the analogy of the ‘wada pav’ in mind, CopyNotify! offers data security solutions that brings enterprise level data protection to the average computer user. The software does basic data protection, is inexpensive in acquisition, feasible in implementation and simple enough to accepted by the average business user. CygNET Systems firmly believes that in India unless the use of data security software percolates down to the average user, an acceptable deterrence against data breaches will never be achieved whatever the size of any organization.

Very low cost of acquisition, suitability for Indian conditions and ease of use of the software products developed by CygNET Systems Pvt. Ltd are already paying rich dividends by the way of increase of sales.

Key learning from selling to customers

Feedback is crucial for a good product. Right from its inception, the team behind CopyNotify! have taken the feedback of users in the field, tried to understand the problems they face in a routine day and then design the software to alleviate these problems. This principle of user feedback based feature additions has made CopyNotify! very popular with its existing customers.

Your views on relevance or importance of leveraging channels and partnerships to sell.

It is far too expensive and time consuming for a startup to set up its own channel of resellers / distributors or having its own sales force. Partnering with existing VARs/Distributors/Resellers is best way to proceed as these organizations already have existing sales networks which can used to push the product out to the market.

The biggest difficulty is getting a partner / distributor to sign up with a start up is the ‘curse’ of being an unknown brand as the effort to push non branded product becomes more time consuming and expensive for the partner hence the reluctance to partner with a start up.

Your views on alliances and its benefits/pitfalls.

For any software product, alliances should not be shirked away from, be it technical, financial or by the way of sales and marketing however care should be taken that all is in ‘black and white’ and immense care should be taken that in the hype tornado of ‘promises and assured success’ the best interests of the start up is kept in mind at all times.

Your views on networking with industry colleagues and participation in conferences. The benefits or pitfalls of the same.

Networking is great provided one can get themselves in a group that is one step ahead of one’s current stage of business and can actually help with getting more sales. Networking is about getting the right connections to make more sales and not just about collecting visiting cards. 

Your message for product development entrepreneurs for India.

You might have a great software product but unless you know how to tell the world about it, it will never sell. If it does not sell, your idea was of no use in the first place.

The secrets of succeeding in the Indian SME Market – the iWeb Story

ProductNation caught up with Akshay Shah, founder and COO of iWeb Technology Solutions to understand how they have been successful in serving the Indian SME market. Akshay says that the ability of their company to provide customizable business solutions at affordable prices is what has led to their success. Read on…

What was the main trigger to start the company? 

The journey leading up to starting iWeb in 2005 is quite interesting. I come from a family of chartered accountants. I was well on my way to pursue CA as my occupation, after my B.Com. While preparing for my CA intermediate exams, I had some free time. During this time, as a hobby, I started following the dot com boom in the US and developed an interest in how Internet was impacting businesses and people.

Around that time, I happened to meet the CEO of a well accomplished IT business firm in one of the conferences. He heard about my interests and checked if I could help his company out in consulting with customers to deploy SAP solutions on a part time basis. The offer seemed interesting to me and I started to work part time. As I started interacting with customers and understanding the product, I very quickly realized that there was a huge disconnect between the features offered by the vendor and the price points at which they were being sold. I understood that there was an unmet need, particularly among the SMEs who wished to automate their business processes using IT.

This was the trigger for me to start thinking of starting iWeb. Along with Ketan Trivedi, my father’s friend, who also is a CA, we tried executing small projects for customers who we obtained from our contacts. The chemistry between Ketan and I seemed to work well. Also the initial work seemed to validate our thought process. Hence we started iWeb in 2005 formally to offer business solutions to customers.

The ERP products/solutions space is usually perceived as a mature and crowded marketplace. How have you managed to build a scalable and sustainable business in this area? 

This perception holds good for VCs and investors who are looking at exits and non-linear growth in a relatively short time dimension. However, in the long term, this will be a very lucrative business, if you play it right. If you analyze the SME market in India today, you will notice that effectively only 5% of the market is automated. So, there is a large scope for many vendors, including the big players to go after the rest.

The issue is not about the availability of market, or access to it. The key challenge in addressing the reminder of the untapped market is to be able to provide customizable solutions at affordable price points. It is here that we believe we have been able to crack this puzzle.

Can you elaborate on how you solved the puzzle? What mistakes happened during the process and how did you overcome them? 

From the beginning, we were pretty determined to build the entire ERP suite. In this zeal, we started to develop all the required capabilities of the product in parallel. However, we soon realized that during the startup phase, we could not manage development as well as customer acquisition with equal ease. We had bootstrapped ourselves and had no external capital infusion till last year. Hence we started selling only the CRM module to begin with, and over time, as we obtained a level of maturity in implementing it out for a few customers, we started paying attention to developing and selling the reminder of the modules.

As our customer base increased, our experience in understanding their requirements also increased. We realized that in the SME segment, business processes across enterprises would not be standardized. So, to be able to still get them to buy our solution and benefit from it, we had to build our product to be customizable to their requirements, and be affordable at the same time. These requirements led us to develop a powerful differentiating capability through our AgilewizTM framework that helps us deliver customized multi vertical and horizontal application solutions across different business lines with minimal amount of deployment time.

The beauty of this approach is that even a non-techie can use and configure a solution of his requirement. This approach helps us eliminate the requirement of highly skilled IT professionals needing to deploy solutions to customers. Customers benefit from it, since it reduces the cost of acquisition of our solution. In summary, over these years, we have evolved our product line and built sustainable business by focusing on providing customizable solutions at affordable costs to the SME segment.

What role have channels and partnerships played to help your sales?

You could say that the biggest asset for iWeb today is the partnerships we have built with other companies and individuals. They are a key factor in scaling the business, specifically for our country that has diverse customer requirements. It is also a relationship that we have built by valuing their domain skills. We are very transparent in all our dealings with partners. We strive to make our partners successful by sharing best practices of implementation through our network. As an example, one partner in Indore may reuse the artifacts developed by another partner elsewhere, reducing his time to deployment. This collaborative nature of relationship has helped us to a great extent in obtaining customer wins.

You have recently announced that you are diversifying as a software services provider, offering SaaS / PaaS type of solutions. What is the thinking behind this move?

The intent to diversify from being a pure product/solution company and enter into providing services via the SaaS / PaaS route is driven by two considerations. Firstly, we want to leverage the benefits of emerging technology and pass the benefits to our customers. Secondly and more importantly, moving to a Saas / PaaS based platform will help us provide better support to our existing set of customers. So you could look at this as our play to retain existing customers and build further to address their other needs.

On a different note, iWeb as a company and you as its founder have received multiple accolades internationally and at national level. What does this mean to you as a person, and how does this help your company?

Recognition from various forums such as the MIT TR35 or being selected as one of the top 50 emerging companies by NASSCOM certainly motivates self and the company in a big way. Firstly, it validates your belief and play, paving way to many business leads. Sales cycles will get much simpler because your prospect now sees you as being credible. Secondly, at a personal level, it is a huge confidence booster, and energizes you to go further your ideas to the next level. I would say that most of our largest breakthroughs in terms of customers or partners’ acquisition have happened on account of this.

What message would you like to give to potential product development entrepreneurs? 

Off late, I see youngsters, specifically those graduating out of MBA colleges taking to entrepreneurship primarily because they see it as a cool factor or as a style statement. They do not seem to be prepared for the long haul. So, my advice to any entrepreneur thinking of getting into a software product business is to do so, only if he or she has a burning desire to solve a real problem – a problem which is causing him or her to have sleepless nights. One needs to understand that the journey of entrepreneurship is not a bed or roses, and you get to do everything else other than what you wanted to do. One should be mentally prepared to face these uncertainties and ambiguities – and be passionate about the idea, have the patience and perseverance to take it to a logical conclusion, come what may. Only then, it makes sense to go this route.

“Customer Relations is very important” – Kailash Katkar, CEO, QuickHeal Technologies

In this fascinating story, Kailash Katkar recalls the past almost two decades of running a business that at one time faced closure. But riding on quality people, constant innovation and proximity to the customer, Quick Heal has become a leading anti-virus software company that is giving even the international anti-virus companies a run for their money. Read on….

Why did you start this business? Why did you form Quick Heal? What was the intention behind it, and did you go for it alone or do you have partners? 

When I started this company I never thought I will convert this company into Software development. It started as a computer repair shop. I used to do calculator repairing first, and then I was into laser printer machine repairing. And in those days it was a monopoly in Pune. But when I saw that these machines were not going to continue for a long time and computers are going to take over I started, computer maintenance and started taking AMCs. In fact, I had a lot of customers. I was not into computer sales. I was purely into computer maintenance. 

My younger brother(Sanjay Katkar) after his 12th standard wanted to get into electronics for his graduation, but I instead said why don’t you do computers. He was a bit reluctant because it was very new and the fees were high but on my advice he did that and used to come to my shop for practice because I had computers in my shop. Now those days, nobody bought antivirus software. In fact it cost a prohibitive Rs. 14-15,000. Customers assumed it was the responsibility of the contractor to provide it and when computers came for maintenance it was the contractor who had to format the machine, re-install the OS, and reload the data. 

Now my younger brother as part of his curriculum had to do a project so I asked him to write some tools which could automatically remove viruses since formatting the machine and reloading all the data was very time consuming and cumbersome. The Michelangelo virus was infamous in those days and was quite a problem for many computer users. He managed to write one simple utility that could eradicate the virus and it worked very well. So I started distributing the tool to my customers and that was the beginning of the anti-virus business.

So based on customer feedback, I ventured into anti-virus software and believe me I had no knowledge of the software industry. We started work on a full-fledged anti-virus software in 1993 and the first version of Quick Heal was released at the end of 1994 most likely.

Sanjay Katkar(left) and Kailash Katkar(right)

It was quite funny actually when I think back. The software was a DOS version that came in a floppy, and then we designed a small envelope with colorful packaging and started selling it. It was a bit tough for me to sell, but then gradually I started getting success, and I got this success through channel partners, because since I was into computer repairing, I used to know most of the computer repairing people. 

So, what was the competition like in those days, Kailash? 

There were a lot many antivirus software. I mean, there was Norton antivirus; there was McAfee; there was Dr. Solomon. And there were a lot of Indian antivirus also. 

From Pune itself, there were three antivirus software manufacturers. The two prominent ones were Cure and Vaccine. 

In Chennai there was Vx2000 and Star antivirus software. And from Mumbai, there was Red-Armour antivirus software, Red Alert antivirus software. From Delhi, there were three antivirus software. So overall across the country, I think there were about 10-11 software, and this doesn’t include international software. 

So from a customer perspective, was there a leaning towards the imported software or Indian software? 

People were more fascinated by imported products and software was no exception. McAfee and Norton were the preferred choices in the market. 

Correct. you must have had a lot of courage to kind of get into the market at that point. 

Yes. Actually, my computer maintenance work was still on. I continued my computer maintenance until 1998 and this gave me the cash to pump into the anti-virus software development and marketing also. Personally, I used to spend 50% time on computer maintenance and 50% time on software sales. And my younger brother was fully focused on development. 

What was your proposition to the customer? 

Actually, it was quite difficult considering the huge competition, with so many number of antivirus software. But in the late nineties, a virus called Dir 2 came into the market. The virus was extremely dangerous and used to decrypt the hard disk. In fact, users never knew when the machine is infected and after infection how many times the machine was rebooted. Now if you applied an anti-virus software in the traditional way, it was just remove the virus but whatever data was decrypted would be lost and the machine would crash. So every time the machine was formatted about 30-50% of data would evaporate. 

So Quick Heal pioneered a unique approach. We managed to find out how much data was decrypted and encrypt it before cleaning the virus. That way we got the virus out and the data restored. This way Quick Heal was the first antivirus software in the market  which used to do this. Even Norton and McAfee were not doing this. 

What was your communication strategy to inform the market of such developments? 

I was not able to go pan India, but I was able to communicate with most of the customers in Pune. In fact soon after Dir 2 came Natash a dangerous polymorphic virus. Again many of the antivirus software companies took a hit but we were able to find a solution and gradually started converting larger customers like the Times of India who took a corporate decision to adopt our software. 

How did you scale that now? From a development perspective, how did you scale it? 

Now we have a team of around 650 people but we went through some tough times. In 1998 I decided to close down the computer maintenance business because it was very difficult to run two business together. I focused on a distributor strategy but that put a strain on my business because while the distributors sold the product they never paid me on time. In fact it reached a stage when in early 2000 I decided to close down the company. 

In 2001-2, I had about Rs.2 to 3 lakhs in the bank, and then one of my friends advised me that if you really want to scale and grow your business, invest in a proper technical team. Also get a good business team. So finally we decided to do it under a lot of strain because in those days banks never supported software companies.

I somehow inserted a big advertisement in the Times of India, almost a half page ad, saying that I’m looking for country managers and city managers. I was then able to hire good people and together we changed the entire structure of the company.

Why did they come and join you? What was it that they saw in Quick Heal that was the game changer for them?

Quick Heal had become a bit popular in the Pune market and most of these people were from Pune itself. So, they knew about this product. They knew about the quality of the product, but they were quite also that the product was not reaching the masses. So they joined the company to take up the challenge and I am proud to say that more than 10 years later they are still with the company. 

With these new people, we embarked on a strategy to open branches in other cities. Soon I developed a lot of confidence that sitting in Pune I can manage branches in other locations also. We started with Nasik. And after Nasik started running well, in three months’ time I started an office in Bombay and then in Nagpur and then in Indore, and then gradually I went into Gujarat and then I went into North India and South India. Today, we have around 23 offices, apart from Pune, across India. 

So you still believe that a large part of your sales has to be achieved by physical presence?

Yes, yes. Most software companies try to appoint national distributors whenever they scale their product to other countries. And perhaps a few regional distributors.  I don’t believe in that. Because what happens, if you….if you appoint a national or a regional distributor he expects a lot many things to be done by the company. He really does not make efforts. He just waits for customers. If the customer demands the product, then he sells the product. 

When I appoint more than 100 channel partners, then I try to appoint one stockist on top of it, so that I don’t have to deal with each and every channel partner for a transaction like billing and invoicing and payment collection and all these things. I can just deal with all the channel partners just to maintain a relationship and make sure that they are comfortable selling Quick Heal, and if they have any issues or problems, we can go and help them. 

So, this is how I started developing a market all over India, and now we have around 12,000 channel partners across India. We have direct connectivity with each of our channel partners. 

How do you keep this channel partner base updated about the product and about new developments?

By giving continuous training. Every branch has a set of people for a sales team, a set of small – one or two persons – for marketing. Then a team for support, and then the administrative team. And among the support team, there is one person who is a trainer who keeps on training all the channel partners about the product features and product support and other functions. We have a training program conducted every Saturday for a specific set of channel partners. 

And how do you keep updated about the innovations that you need to bring into the products? So, the new antivirus, antidotes, whatever. 

Actually, since the team is spread out across India we always have meetings with the branch managers once in a quarter, and then we keep on getting a lot of feedback from the entire market through these branch managers as to what the customers are looking for.

Okay. Looking at this 15 year journey now, what would you pinpoint as the most important thing that you have done. 

Customer relations are very important for me and understanding the customer is very important for me. So, I have to focus more on that, what exactly customers are looking for and how I can get that service with less effort for me as well as for my team by developing some tools or something like this, you know. 

How do you keep abreast of fast changing technological developments? 

Our senior level team of about 7 to 8 executives constantly are attending conferences and travelling across the globe. For instance, we attend the Red Hat conference and this Hackers conference and most of the antivirus conferences and a lot many security conferences that keep on happening….Not only do they attend, but we also keep on presenting our research papers in these conferences. So every year, around four to five papers are being presented by Quick Heal.