3 Learnings From a Fintech SaaS Offering For Indian SMEs

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

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

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

On Sales:

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

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

Phone Support:

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

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

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

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

Pricing Is Key, ARPU would be low

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

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

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

So how has your SaaS experience in India been?

Choosing The Right Startup For Yourself!

The startup hype is at its peak and everyone from a fresher to veteran is considering being at a Startup. I come across a story every other day when someone is regretting not joining a startup or starting up him/herself. So if you are someone looking to work for a startup, here are a few things to consider: 

The right problem? Is this a rocket ship?

 People startup for various reasons. Some to solve a personal problem, some because they were bored of working for others, some for lack of opportunities and some purely to make money. At the end of it, of course everyone wants to be rich. But the rewards only come in the long term (~3-5 yrs). So how do you know in year 1 or 2 that this is the right place to work? The right team to join? One simple old school way is to of course evaluate the problem that this startup is solving. If you think this is a worthy problem to solve and the startup you are considering has a fair chance to be one of the key players in this market, sure go ahead and get on the rocketship!

rocket ship sheryl

 The right stage of the company? Money?

 Companies go through different stages of evolution. Starting with broke to barely alive and seed funded to scaling terribly fast. For each stage, the challenge is different. The startup you are looking to join may be fighting for survival or looking to scale. Depending on what your appetite for adventure is, choose wisely 🙂

 Startups often require people to work for low salaries and if you are important enough, some equity too. My mantra has generally been to not give equity in exchange of survival cash. So do not accept a ridiculously low salary just because you are getting equity (unless you are part of founding team or very early).

 Most startups fail and even out of the ones which survive, very few manage to give a rich returns for ESOP that employees hold. So as the company revenue grows, it is not uncommon for the startup to give a raise more than once in a year. So talk to the founders openly about money and ESOP, have clarity. You may not be committed ESOP on day one, and that is fine. But don’t take a vague promise of ESOP, if it is committed, number of shares and its weightage should be told to you immediately.


 The startup may be a rocketship in the right sector and you may be in a position to help it thrive. But do you get along well with the founders? Do you trust them? Would you enjoy working with them? A lot of tough times would be spent making this company work, you better be in with people who you can tolerate. Yes I use the word tolerate, because it won’t be smooth sail all across, you just need to have enough to stick along. Read what they write, stalk them on social media and get a feel of who they are. Of course, meet them in person.

 Alignment with what you want to do?

 Just because a startup is going to be big and you get along with the founders, may not be all the reason to join in. What is your inspiration? Do you feel for solving this problem as much? A good reason for not doing something that doesn’t come naturally to you is the fact that it becomes difficult to keep doing it when times are tough. On that note, you would want to read – How Not to Die by Paul Graham. Continue reading “Choosing The Right Startup For Yourself!”

Product Management Roundtable For Startups by iSPIRT In Pune. #PlaybookRT

After all the missed opportunities of being at a PlaybookRT by iSPIRT, I finally made it to Pune last weekend for the roundtable on Product Management. Amit Somani and Rahul Kulkarni conducted the session. While I can’t do justice to all that was discussed at the session, I am translating my notes from the Roundtable into this blog post. After sharing some of our product dev insights in my last post Learnings From Building A Consumer Facing Web Product, this was a good opportunity to become a sponge and soak in all that I could manage. 

As a startup founder who hasn’t previously worked in a product company, starting a product business is tough. And being a CEO with no technology background, doesn’t help the mix either. The challenges for building an internet product for me may be more than the average amongst the ones attending this Roundtable, but product management is still a tough beast. Understanding consumer needs, building a product around it, figuring the right metrics for your business, measuring it and iterating is puzzling for anyone, specially given the fact that we are always chasing a moving target.

2014-11-08 14.15.57To give you a taste of how things play out in the real world:

When we started PriceBaba back in 2012, mobile apps were a good to have, desktop traffic was bulk of Internet usage and little did i know that India is on the verge of such massive investments in online shopping. Over 2 years later, the story is very different. Mobile is huge (both web and apps), online shopping is real and consumer Internet in India and the investment landscape which was looking slow between 2012-2014 has picked up crazy momentum.

For a startup that is bootstrapped, at an accelerator or even seed funded stage, getting the product market fit, raising funds to survive, hiring good techies and dealing with an uncertain market which is changing fast is a daunting task. If you add to that the learning curve involved to make things successful, you would know why I appreciate this Product Management PlaybookRT by iSPIRT so much.

The Product Management #PlaybookRT

Amit and Rahul kicked off the session by helping us define our product vision (and separating it from the company vision and mission). We were asked to make a 30 sec pitch by each of us on our product vision along with two things that we would never do. Both Amit and Rahul played devils advocate and helped us think through what we are doing. Learning: A quick dipstick to check if your product vision is well defined, ask employee no 20! If they can define it well in your (founders) absence, then you have set your product culture right.

Stack rank your requirements. What is the single most important thing you? Rahul suggested us that things can’t move forward till we stack rank our priorities. We must know what is the most important thing that we do. A somewhat heated discussion was on how important the user interface of a product is for being successful. Should we fret about having the best UX out there or build a product that is very compelling, offers a better price than competition and delivers what is promises reliably? To cut short on what could be a day long debate, here are two independent bits I picked up from our facilitators. i) If you are offering something that no one else can, your consumer will also use a command prompt to get it. ii) Your Apps UX is much more important than what it was a few years back and it is getting more and more important by the day. But that may not be the lone factor in getting a winner out there. That said, don’t purposely try to build a bad UX 😉

The user experience is not just defined by what the user does on your mobile or web interface. It is every touchpoint that the consumer has with your brand / service. It is the whole packaging of what a user goes through. For a e-commerce site it would go down to the professionalism and courtesy of their delivery boys. Similarly, when taking a view of product, the challenge isn’t always about getting that killer UX designer to work on your mobile app. It is really defining what your product does and how.

Each of us got enough time to define our key metrics and find ways of measuring them. With my experience I can surely tell you that it is indeed true that which ever metric you track on a day to day basis, improves quite magically 🙂

Tips on collecting feedback & effective product management: 

  • Take feedback from your extreme users. Either the ones who are very naive and would ask very basic questions. Or from the extreme users who would want every pro feature out there
  • Group users by commonality. Set goals for users who perform well. So track a users life journey within your app, figure key milestones and set them as goals. Optimize for these goals. So if you know that a user who completes Level 1 of your game, is most likely to play till Level 4, try to optimize such that you acquire users who will complete Level 1

Apart from the evergreen Google Analytics which is great for averages, tools like Mixpanel, Kissmetrics and Wizrocket are great for digging into specifics. You may want to give them a spin. You may also want to check Dave McClures talk on Startup Metrics for Pirates. 


Hiring. The Big Deal. 

So the tired entrepreneur in you is thinking already, when can I hire someone to take some of my money and all my product problems? Well, well not so soon! Product Managers come in various flavours and to begin with, YOU are the PM. Hiring a lead product manager is tough and transition is not easy. You need folks who are curious, bring product insight, are analytics, can be strategic and can work with really smart engineers. This is an individual that blends great communication skill and simplicity. So where do you find such a mahapurush?

Amit suggested a good strategy of hiring young grads and train them to become good PMs in a year. They will love the opportunity at the start of their career and won’t burn a big hole in your pocket. That said, a dedicated product lead will take over the duties from the founder(s). This would ideally happen at a later stage for most of us attending the Roundtable. The three flavors of Product Managers are:

i) A Project Manager who will get your task list executed

ii) A product manager who will get the job done but won’t give a new direction to the part they are leading – the CEO holds the strings. Also example of Windows OS where changing one aspect as per will of a Product Manager won’t fly, it would need the to go hand in hand with the whole OS

iii) The Business Owner – Give this product manager your metrics and let him/her chase it down for you with full ownership

^cheat sheet: Google for questions asked to Product Managers at Google / Amazon / FB 🙂 

2014-11-08 14.22.30Best Practices For Product Development: 

i) The Amazon Approach – Write a press release before starting the product development. Also read this by Ian McAllister of Amazon:

ii) Before you launch the product, predict the no of users your new product / feature would have for the next week & month. Define the usage metrics

iii) Have extreme clarity in goals, let people make mistakes but own the job

iv) Questions to ask yourself – Is this world class? Can an engineer look this up and build it in 2 days? Why are you uniquely positioned to do that?

Also appreciate if someone else has users and learn as to why they have users for what they have built. You can learn a lot from that. Eg: Google & Apple learnt about good features that would eventually go into their OS by looking at some trivial but popular apps on their App Stores.

Books recommended by Amit and Rahul: 

  • The innovator’s dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen
  • Start with why by Simon Sinek (also the TED talk by Simon)
  • Profit from the Core: Growth Strategy in an Era of Turbulence by Chris Zook
  • Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Identify and Exploit the Crisis Points that Challenge Every Business by Andrew Grove

2014-11-08 16.26.16

Learnings From Building A Consumer Facing Web Product

Before we got started with PriceBaba, both me and Tirthesh had almost zero experience of building a product. We are passionate about Internet and web services that create an impact. Building PriceBaba over the past two years has been a learning experience and we have been blessed to have some amazing friends who have guided us throughout the process. Here are a few learnings (while we still continue to learn and grow):

Developers cannot build in silos

To create a great product, it is great to hear feedback from the horse’s mouth. That is why our developers have a lot of interaction with our users directly. The best way to raise the product quality is to let your developers see the product in use.

We have also benefited by having the operations and dev teams sit next to each other. There is constant flow of feedback and developers accordingly iterate and prioritise their roadmap. All incoming user feedback is shared with the developers and content teams, thus everyone has sufficiently enough data points when debating new features and upgrades.

People don’t listen, keep repeating, keep listening

We often assume that communicating something once is enough to make the point. However a learning with PriceBaba has been that we need to recreate the importance of an approach repeatedly!

For example, most of our team has grown up using desktops. Especially developers who have also had pro systems with large screens and keyboards to work on. Thinking that mobile is the medium that majority of our users operate from isn’t a natural thought. Our thinking begins from a large screen while mobile remains an ‘optimisation’ task. It has taken a lot of unlearning and relearning for our team to adapt the thought of mobile first. Any new feature or interface has to be thought for mobile and tablet just as much as for desktop.

I relentlessly share our mobile usage numbers, industry reports and keep mentioning MOBILE as a keyword to my developers. They are listening and building a great mobile interface for PriceBaba 🙂

Mobile Mobile Mobile, but not Mobile App, Yet

While I already mentioned how important mobile is, we have often been tempted to build a mobile app. However we have consciously stuck to mobile web for several reasons.

Our product offering isn’t something that a user wants to use daily. In its current form, building an app would lead to very low repeat users and uninstalls. The way the app business works is that you get ‘x’ thousand downloads and a fraction of those would be active users. For an app like Zomato or Paytm this makes a lot of sense as repeat usage is very high; we love using them on a regular basis. But we need to evolve the value proposition of PriceBaba much more before we release an app.

Development resource is another big reason! While mobile is growing, mobile web is serving most use cases just fine. An app is good to show off on your resume, but not the need of the day in many scenarios (like ours). We like to focus our developer resources on the most crucial things first.

Manual first, Automate second

PriceBaba isn’t a usual technology startup. A large part of our work is to integrate offline retail with the internet. A lot of operations, back office and systems to manage the same has been built over the last two years.

Almost always we have begun our ground operations with manual work and then work towards automating them slowly. Doing things manually has allowed us to iterate quickly, learn more about our customers before making solutions and eventually prevent wasting development time.

We have realised that trying to automate things either before hitting a critical mass or a ceiling isn’t always a good idea. While we have made our mistakes of building things too early, for PriceBaba it has mostly worked better to do things manually and then automate once we have a better understanding of the landscape we operate in. Depending on the situation, you may well need to build systems in advance but do ask yourself if you can do better if it’s delay it a little.

Every feedback is not a new product feature

This is fairly simple and straightforward. Once you are out in the market there is a plethora of feedback that comes to you. Every single day users tell us what new features they want, experts suggest new cool stuff that we can do and our team brainstorms world-changing ideas while sipping tea every other day.

After a few cycles of jumping to every new cool looking feature and trying to develop it, we learnt that unless something is a really pressing need or would add significantly great value to our users, we shouldn’t launch it. That meant saying ‘no’ to adding new product categories, product reviews and some more features that are too early for us right now. We instead chose to focus on local prices and store locations; which is our key value proposition and narrowed down our focus on a single category that we could dominate.

We keenly listen to every feedback that comes our way, we note it, discuss it to death, but we don’t build it right away :). We have in fact removed a major feature few months back that we felt was half baked, needed lot of maintenance and served a very small fraction of our user base. This may sound cliche, but we are starting to learn how to say ‘NO’ to a lot of great sounding ideas.

Fake it, till you make it + an alternate to AB tests

This one is my favourites and we love doing it from time to time — adding fake buttons to our site. A simple way of testing if a new feature is worth adding to the site, we add a fake button on the site and measure how many people clicked it. It is a quick and dirty way to get a feeler of what will click with our users.

For a long time we had a fake ‘set price alert’ button on PriceBaba’s product pages. The same captured email IDs but sent them no alerts, for we had no backend built for that purpose. When we started to see significantly enough email IDs being entered everyday, we built and delivered that feature. We went an extra mile and added a SMS alert feature along with it. Today the SMS alerts are the most popular user interaction on the site.

We have often been suggested to do AB tests and we would eventually start doing that. However in early days when the user base is very small, we do a A>B>C test. We change a particular product attribute, measure user interaction and change it further if the results aren’t great. Most startups can afford to do that in the early days and move faster with their product.

Speed Is Crucial

We have learnt first-hand that speeding up your application can greatly improve usage. Earlier this year we saw a 25% spike in traffic overnight by just moving to a better hosting provider. On another occasion, removing a 300ms delay in our search’s auto suggestions saw a 60% increase in the number of searches by our users. While we wouldn’t claim to be the best in optimising for speed, a good part of our time has gone into learning and implementing ways to accelerate our page load speeds, thus improving user experience.

Disclaimer: My experiences are from building a consumer facing Internet product.

Guest Post by Annkur P Agarwal a retailer turned technology blogger who got bitten by the product bug recently. PriceBaba.com is a shopping research engine that helps consumers connect with small retailers. You can connect with him on twitter @annkur.