Day 2 of NPC: Attempting to Steer in the Right Direction

As NASSCOM Product Conclave 2012 drew to a close, Sharad Sharma reiterated that product technology will eliminate poverty in India. The social consciousness and import of this statement, usually reemphasized as electoral slogans of gharibi hatao by politicians, points to envisioning a future in which the role of product technology encompasses not only growth of global companies, impacting the world (changing the world!), in India but also its increasingly central role in the nation’s development. M. Rangasami is the visible face of NPC, curating sessions with childlike enthusiasm. He wants to pay back his home country, from which he grew up for the first 20 years of life, something substantial and impactful. And he sees product technology as one means, as it is likely to explode in the coming years. The Valley has about 30% plus of Indian cofounders in startups and innumerable successful product executives and entrepreneurs. If they are inspired by MR to pay back to the nation, imagine its impact. In a way, NASSCOM Product Conclave brings some of them into the sessions to inspire the product entrepreneurs in India.

India—what is happening really?
As predictions are glorious of the future, what is happening on ground in India? What prompts envisioning a game-changing future for product tech? Maybe success of companies like InMobi. Naveen Tiwari, InMobi founder, was generous with his time to explain how InMobi succeeded and was seen in the hallways talking to people wanting to strike a conversation. In the breakfast session, he explained the InMobi way of global growth and scale. InMobi did not go after developed markets like US and Europe to start with. They identified huge white spaces in markets like Southeast Asia and Africa where customer needs were identified by online sales first. Then one of the founders would typically fly to that country to understand the market. This is not an easy task and over time, InMobi would hire a local person to run its operations. And thinking big and not content with growth, the InMobi team constantly brainstorms on how to usher in say 10x growth. Any big achievement starts with thinking big and following it up with risky initiatives. And you should stay undaunted by failure and missteps. There was a mention by Niel Patel, founder of QuickSprouts in his keynote in the evening, that product ventures don’t succeed at first iteration. They turn successful at third iteration. And product ventures cannot hit scale on a template model like services. In addressing the press, to showcase apps that promise to be game changers, Sharad Sharma said, “TCS showed the way and everyone followed it [in services]. But in products, it cannot be done.” Each story is different and each endeavour unique. Naveen Tiwari and InMobi can inspire product entrepreneurs to think of huge possibilities if one goes cracking. And identifying the sweet spot to achieve that takes multiple iterations. Deep Nishar, the star product manager at LinkedIn, earlier in the keynote, pointed out that no first iteration was successful. For example, PayPal started initially to enable payments on handheld devices and then changed to Internet payments. YouTube started as a video dating site and became a social video site later. Some have vanished on the way too, due to various reasons.

Where is the market?
Market evolution and customer adoption are crucial to succeeding in a product venture. Deep Kalra’s story is well known. When Internet was still in nascent stages, he started a web-based travel site. Sensing that opportunity exists outside India, he first served NRIs travelling to India. It took close to five years to find that customers will go to Internet to book tickets in India. Effectively, MakeMyTrip took off in India only in 2005. Indian product technology skill sets are not in question. But is the market ready for your offering? That is another question to keep in mind. Apps are exploding. Child prodigies are pouncing on to that space. But where will apps lead India into? Will it stay a diverse apps market with thousands of apps or will something like a global rage app (say Angry Birds) come out of India?

The kind of pertinent questions that are asked at this stage is how to move to the next stage. A vast number of sessions addressed challenging questions such as pitching right to the investor, a novel reverse pitch for investors to find suitable entrepreneurs, how to take mobile apps global, hiring the sales people, and metrics-driven marketing. When the question to Deep Nishar was put forth on what to focus upon to build a business in products, he pointed out to disruptions in enterprise software and building over it. His take was that enterprise products could be tested in India and taken to the rest of the world. The sense one could get out of these types of propositions and expert speak is that the market is in a flux. Enormous product tech activity is happening. But for some products, the market has to mature (adopting Indian products in enterprise) or be created for others (for example, SMBs). Deep Nishar pointed out the new smart phone like iPhone and Galaxy as not overnight innovations. A combination of earlier developments only results in a new innovation. Palm top, touch screen, iPod all combine in a new visual and spatial thinking to result in an iPhone. Can you think of a combination of such innovations to create something new and create a new market for those products?

Building products for India or the world?
A common prescription of experts like Amar Goel and Deep Nishar is that you stay close to the customer for whom you are developing the product. There is another school that thinks customer care shouldn’t be needed as the product should be simple and self-explanatory for users anywhere in the world. Deep Nishar laid seven components of a product to create a product bliss. Simplicity is one overarching principle. He opines that too many choices would make the product unattractive. Focus on select features and build on them. He showcased several LinkedIn features to validate his statement. For example, when LinkedIn was on mobile, the team did not adapt Web into mobile. They sought to understand what LinkedIn would look like on a mobile and created a new look. And sensing that customers log on to mobile devices such as iPad and smart phones early in the morning or late at night, news was added to mobile LinkedIn. Moreover, a feature shows the day’s appointments too.

Given that there is a possibility of Cloud to build a product and sell it all over the world, what kind of products could be developed without needing customer in proximity is an innovation that could be thought of. And most Indian product companies now have a global market. But scale is the question.

More questions than answers
By showcasing successes outside India and bringing in product developers like Tarkan Maner of Dell Wyse who has sold his company to Dell for a billion dollars, there is an endeavour to instil right thinking and point to pertinent directions. And by engaging several people in the ecosystem to understand their experiences of what worked and what hasn’t provides a clarity picture for the product entrepreneurs. At this moment, though, there seems to be more questions asked than answers given. The important need of the moment is asking the right questions. So it is the hope that answers will evolve and such answers would lead to a product tech revolution, as in MR’s prediction, or it would even answer India’s societal concerns of eliminating poverty, in Sharad Sharma’s extrapolation.

Both predictions are not imaginary but understood from the success of products and its greatest impact in the United States. The wealth that Bill Gates created is being channelled into health care concerns of the world and when iPhone 5 was released, there was a report that its sales across the world would contribute a significant percent to US GDP. Such developments set the context for India to take the cue and look ahead.

Contributed Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy, Product Tech Ecosystem Enthusiast

Product LaunchPAD: Putting the spotlight on 9 quality tech products

On day two of the NASSCOM Product Conclave, nine ‘Product LaunchPAD’ companies were announced. These companies were recognized for their high-quality, emerging products.  The gathering, which took place in the ‘Agenda’ hall at the Vivanta by Taj, comprised representatives of the selected companies, industry veterans, the co-hosts of the event (Sharad Sharma and MR Rangaswami) as well as members of the online and offline media communities.

In a time when the product ecosystem in the country is gaining momentum, it’s important to recognize the efforts of companies like these who are focussed on delivering high-quality technology products and putting India on the product map of the world. As Sharad Sharma pointed out while addressing media at the Product LaunchPAD event, the considerable phase of acceleration in the Indian product space demarcates the ‘tigers in the ecosystem’ — but why is it so important for the product ecosystem to grow?

Let’s get some context.

There are two paths that lie in front of India today: either it can go the way the UK went — where globalization hollowed out the the SMB sector — or it can go the way Germany went — where it’s vibrant and thriving SMB industry shaped the development of the country. So what role does the Indian product story have in this situation? Well, the answer to how the Indian SMB story shapes up depends largely on what’s happening in the Indian SMB ecosystem today. And this means that Indian product companies have to embrace new trends like non-traditional business models and cloud-based technology which enable the availability of software at every available price point. Sharad Sharma highlighted the importance of this last point — he drew a parallel to the revolutionary Nokia phone that was priced Rs.2000, which completely changed the way the aam Indian communicated. This is exactly whats happening in the software world today. More often than not, software is the carrier of best practices in new environments, and this is what makes India uniquely poised to start a new journey of transformation.  And this transformation depends largely on the ability of Indian SMBs to re-invent themselves around these new technologies.

Luckily for India, it’s economic structure is quite similar to the German economy. The data tells a strong story : 26% of India’s GDP comes from the SMB sector, which is growing at a much faster pace than the large businesses sector. For the overall Indian economy to treble, this Indian SMB sector has to not just double but treble — because the burden of the growth of the Indian economic sector is dependent on the growth of the SMB sector, which needs technology to help re-invent itself.

The Product LaunchPAD initiative provides a platform for these companies to showcase their products, which have been in the market for at east a few months.

This year, the judges received 54 entries and shortlisted nine companies after much deliberation. Reflecting the current trends in the industry, many of these companies showcased products and concepts revolving around the cloud, localization and location services, mobility, web applications, social media and script-less test automation.

The nine Product LaunchPAD companies selected for 2012 are:

Qualitia Software Pvt. Ltd (Pune): Qualitia is an easy-to-use yet powerful test automation B2B platform which supports leading test automation tools like HP-QTP and IBM- RFT, including open source solutions like Selenium / Webdriver. This is a script-less test automation platform that transforms the way existing QA teams work in organizations. It empower existing QA teams and automated testing teams.

InSync Tech-Fin Solutions Limited (Kolkata): InSync’s product SBOeConnect is a simple, integrated and flexible solution aimed at Magento (an eBay e-commerce platform)  merchants. The product enables fully automatic and bi-directional data synchronization between the SAP Business One ERP system and the Magento e-commerce platform.

The product is already being used by 80+ Magento merchants, as it fulfills a need that e-commerce businesses have which is a need for an integrated ERP system. The company recently launched a Windows 8 application.

Magnasoft Consulting India Pvt. Ltd (Bangalore): Magnasoft focuses on the geospatial industry, specifically on three segments: content (maps), enterprise (large software for corps) and consumer (child safety). Their product NorthStar caters to the third segment, as the company identified a sweet-spot in the area of child-safety in the K-12 ages. The product used Amazon’s cloud platform to offer a subscription based model to parents who pay Rs.50 a month to receive SMSs that tell them when exactly the school bus their child is on will reach the designated bus-stop. The system works with an accuracy of two minutes and focuses on improving the safety and accountability of school bus systems using the RFID system.

Ciafo (Bangalore): Ciafo’s product Frrole sees itself going beyond mainstream media to revolutionize the news industry. It relies on people enabling news to move faster, and champions the thought of news not being controlled by one single entity. With increased direct sharing and historically low trust levels in mainstream media, Frrole presents a revolutionary new alternative for users to discover news about and around them. By promoting citizen journalism, it also hopes to create a society with more symmetrical distribution of news and opinions.

Silver Stripe Software Pvt. Ltd (Chennai): Tour My App is Silver Stripe Software’s new product which aims to increase user engagement and trial conversion in self-serve web apps. When people sign up with web apps online, its important that they know how to use the app by themselves otherwise they lose interest. The product solves the “what should I do next?” pain point. It lets web application developers create guided tours inside their application on the Tour My App site.

Greytip Software Pvt. Ltd. (Bangalore): GreyTip’s product Greytip Online is a cloud based HR and payroll software (SaaS) that is suitable for SME companies who have between ten and 250 employees. It simplifies and automates most payroll and employee data management activities, including statutory calculation and reporting. With this product, the company takes automation to smaller companies in order to make them competitive, but uses Indian prices. It currently has a user base of 95,000 employees.

Pipal Tech Ventures (Bangalore): Pipal Tech’s application is B2C free application that  aims at bringing Google like search capabilities for offline retailers. DelightCircle is the company’s customer engagement and location based marketing platform. The DelightCircle Smartphone app allows consumers to discover places to shop and eat based on their location and interests, and get rewarded for this. There’s also a DelightCircle SMS based app and a DelightCircle website that offer the same capabilities.

SignEasy: SignEasy is an iPhone, iPad and Android application that offers a a simple and quick way to sign and return documents securely from a device. It allows for multiple signers to accelerate professional transactions and close deals from virtually anywhere. The app also allows for text and image insertions and it can be linked to Box, Dropbox and Evernote for retrieval and archiving of documents. It supports several document and image formats and also offers the ability to set a personal passcode to prevent unauthorized access to signatures and files.

 Selasdia (sales aid spelt backwards) is Aiaioo Labs’ product  which is an intelligent sales assistant for brands. It is essentially a CRM system that has access to customer information, which it uses to listen to all that customers are saying on blogs and  other areas online, and capture this information. It tracks blogs, understands the posts and lets brands know when it is relevant to them and the products they are selling. It tells brands what their customers’ interests are, helps them build relationships and helps them find people they should be talking to.

Building a great product takes time and happens over a number of years…

Getting patented has immense aspirational value for product developers, but it is a long drawn process and takes normally anything between 5-8 years. Our story this time is about how a bunch of very intelligent individuals, who got together to build a product and have it patented within two years.  If it is aspirational to have a patent against one’s name, it is certainly inspirational, the time frame in which it was achieved.

We got talking to Anand, who is based out of Bangalore, and was only 15-days old at Vigyanlabs  handling the marketing activities there. The passion with which he spoke, belied his short stint and seemed as if he had spent his entire lifetime in the organisation. Shortly thereafter, we were joined by Srini & Vatsa, the founders of Vigyanlabs. Hugely experienced, cumulatively they both have 50 + years (Vatsa 30 + & Srini more than 20) of building products and software architecture in very large organisations like HP, IBM & Hughes Network Systems.  Both had held senior positions in HP, where Vatsa was the Chief architect, and with Srini later, went on to hold Senior Technical Positons at Dell-Perot, just before starting Vigyanlabs. Vatsa had also worked in Processor Systems India, where he did some very innovative and cutting-edge work. These would prove to be building blocks, someday. A very potent combination indeed, which helped file 9 Patents. Slowly but surely the spirit of building an Indian product was taking shape.

Early days:

After  calling it quits with their present employers, the duo spent two weeks in just defining Vision & Mission of the company that they would build, and establishing short-term & long-term goals. This brainstorming session helped them in creating the DNA : It was going to be an innovative Science & Technology Organisation; it would focus on green technology and social responsibility to be a key driver. All this would be achieved by harnessing the power of teamwork. The customer and his needs would be primary to all business concerns. A deep-dive helped identify the three major problems that the world was facing: Food, Environment & Energy. The seeds were sown – it would be a Science & Technology company where IT would play a vital role.

Vigyanlabs would primarily focus on : Consulting, Architecture & Design and aim to solve problems related to food, environment & energy.   The name itself was very Indian and spoke of the future, The “Science” of it, being right here. Vigyan.

Ideation:

After much study and prior experience, the team soon identified a “hole” in the market and a plausible approach to address the same. Efficient power management was still not very popular in India. The existing solutions were not upto the mark and this was evident, the way laptops consumed power. The battery would get heated and run out sooner than desired, putting user at a disadvantage. The higher income group consumed a lot of power through a freakish number of gadgets and electronic devices. The wastage was huge and put immense pressure on the environment as a whole.  This was early 2009, and out of an Incubation Centre in Mysore, was born the idea which took shape and one day be the product IPMPlus.

The concept that was used to build this product had widespread usage and would be extended to other industries as well. In the US markets, patents were filed for something similar, but not so India. It was built around power consumption and its optimization in laptops – all this without causing any obstruction in the normal flow of work.  Intelligent Power Management Plus was about maintaining user experience.   

The Passion:

For Srini and Vatsa, it was always about building an Indian product which aimed at fulfilling the vision and mission of the company. They found obvious role models in the likes of Ratan Tata and Sir M. Visvesvaraya, who is also a Bharat Ratna awardee – the doyens of innovative thinking in this country.  

Wow Moments:

The Beta version itself helped a customer save 40% on energy cost and the need to come out with a marketable version was even more palpable. Within two years of filing for patents, the founders  got it done, a record of some sorts, which normally takes anything upto 5 years or even more.

Marketing Outreach & Strategy:

The stretch has been to create a global footprint and get the product onto the AppStores so it can be used with Android, Apple and Windows applications. The other initiative, is integrating with device OEMs and capture a major chunk of the market.  On the Enterprise segment, tablets and servers opened a whole new world of opportunity. Just to give an example of how big the problem really is, the amount of power consumption in large organisations is enough to even run a small town, cited in a recent NYT article. Large businesses have 50 – 100 data centres and do not have many tools which harness power optimisation.

Key Learning:

Building a great product takes time and happens over a number of years. The gestation period is long and during this time patience and sustainability is what really matters. Unlike the Valley, the market in India is not so matured and there is an initial resistance to try out Indian products. Somehow product developers should aim to break that.  Finally good products come through good people – who are technically sound, who you can trust and who have the business acumen too.

Conversation with Customer Interaction Management Provider, Drishti-Soft Solutions

Launched in 2003, Drishti-Soft Solutions specializes in software products for Customer Interaction Management and now empowers more than 10 million customer interactions per day for customers in 40 countries. We interviewed CEO Bishal Lachhiramka about the company’s product development journey and other advice for startup CEOs.

SandHill.com: How did your company originate?

Bishal Lachhiramka: When I and the other founders (Sachin Bhatia, VP Business Development, and Nayan Jain, CTO) were in college 10 years ago, an idea clicked in our heads to build a technology to manage information better than existing ways, something that would stand ahead of its time even if we take today’s scenario.

While talking to seniors and advisors, we were told that India was not the location for building software products. Call it youthful exuberance or passion — whatever it was, we believed that we could succeed. This was the seed of Drishti, but we wanted to learn business fundamentals first before turning on our geek personas.

We provide innovative solutions that help businesses improve and manage their customer experience and customer reach. We were adamant that this technology would change how information is managed. Looking towards the future now, we aspire to be one of the top 10 recognized CIM solution providers across the globe.

SandHill.com: Is there a story behind your company name?

Bishal Lachhiramka: The meaning of the word Drishti is “vision.” When we started the company, we only had a vision. That vision was to build a successful technology from India and change people’s perception on our capability. The strongest thing we had when we started the company was purpose and vision.

SandHill.com: What is your target market, and did it change from what you envisioned at the outset?

Bishal Lachhiramka: Our target customers include: Hospitality, Healthcare, BPO providers, BFSI, Entertainment, Travel & Tourism, and B2C enterprises.

We initially catered our solution to enterprises and BPO providers. But small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) have always been an important segment for our company. Our biggest challenge to date is scaling our solution to this segment, not only in terms of acquiring new clientele but to also help their businesses grow in the long-term.

Through hard work, several revisions and iterations, and constant learning with external help, we developed a better understanding of the SMB customer segment, sales process and success criteria. Thereafter, we were able to establish effective sales practices (including CRM development) that helped us address the challenges in this market.

Read the complete article here

Domain knowledge is key to building successful B2B products

Suresh Sambandam is the founder and CEO of OrangeScape, a company he set up along with colleague from Selectica, Mani Doraisamy. OrangeScape provides a Platform as a Service (PaaS) to build domain rich solutions, easily and fast. The company recently launched KiSSFLOW, the first workflow-as-a-service exclusively for Google Apps which seamlessly integrates with Google mail, docs and contacts. In the first of a two-part interview for pn.ispirt.in, Suresh talks to us about what inspired him to start OrangeScape, what factors he feels are important while starting up and when to recognize the deciding moment of whether to give up or continue.

So many people from smaller town today who are getting into the business today — for example you have people from Udupi and Agra who are foraying into the business. What about your story –you yourself hail from Cuddalore, a Tier 3 city so where did it start for you?

I believe that there are two sources of ideas. One is typically a B2C idea – and this comes from your common encounters. You yourself are consumer, and you encounter different problems as a user of a product. You get frustrated and you think about building new products or solutions to solve this frustration. This is where you can see a lot of younger people like college kids or graduates getting in to the game – if you carefully observe most of these products you’ll see more B2C products because the founders would have been users themselves who were faced with a particular problem and then thought about solving it. These don’t really require very deep domain knowledge. On the other hand you can take OrangeScape which is a B2B product that’s complex, as B2B products tend to be. This is because it takes someone who’s been in the area to understand the dynamics, gain deeper knowledge and figure out the gaps and challenges.

Personally, prior to starting OrangeScape I was working for a company called Selectica which is a US based company that was one of the leaders in business rule engine space. At some point Selectica sold the Division I was part of, to Accenture, and we saw that as a great segue into the problem of how can we democratize application building process? That is a deep domain knowledge we got exposed due to our intensive work at Selectica in an adjacent area. So all this experience and knowledge helped the core team generate the idea and we decided this was something we should address and go after.

So essentially there are two key factors that started the OrangeScape story. One was the experience that you gained from the previous companies you worked at, that helped you identify scope for improvement. The other was the core team, which is obviously fundamental to getting out on your own. What other factors would you say are important when you’re starting up?

India is slowly moving from services to a product building country. OrangeScape takes this thinking to one more level of sophistication which from product to creating sophisticated technology /platform. As I said before, to know this side of the tracks you need a lot of domain expertise. You need to know the problem and go after that. Second, of course the team is the most important thing. We had been blessed with a great team starting with my co-founder Mani that stayed on course for a longtime on this journey. Thirdly, I would say to some extent the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ plays a role here. Initially, we didn’t know how big the problem we were going after really was.

It was only after years did we realize that this is problem that an IBM or Oracle would go after, not a startup. But then if I knew all that when I started off, there are chances that we would have given up. Sometimes you don’t know everything about the problem, but then you take chances. And then you need to stay put on the path and committed. You have to be convinced about the problem and pursue the solution. So all these things need to come together for you to go in the direction that you want to.

When you do you decide that you’re making it or breaking it? What is that deciding factor? Where do you decided ‘enough is enough it’s time to get a day job’, or ‘hey, we’ve cracked it’?

The defining moment depends on your assessment of how big the problem you’re trying to solve. If the problem that you’re trying to solve is big enough for you to stay put on your course, then that’s a pretty strong deciding factor. I don’t think many people realize that it took SAP 15 years to go from product concept to launch and in the last ten years, they’ve been doing good business. Now cloud is disrupting their business, that is a different story. SAP was convinced that the problem they were dealing with was big enough and this inspired the vision for them to stay on course. So this is one aspect that determines whether you should hang up your boots or not. I would say that if you’re going after a small a problem then after some years you may decide to give up, but if it’s bigger then this may not happen. The other aspect is that if you’re meeting progress and you’re doing reasonably ok (not significantly, but you’re definitely progressing) then again this gives you the motivation to stay focused. If none of this is happening, then that may be an indicator that you may have to move on.

SaaS and Silicon Valley are Game-Changers in India

A revolution is taking place in India’s businesses, which is transforming India at large. It began with mobile phones. Although there were telephones in India prior to mobile phones, they never took off in a big way. But mobile phones are so inexpensive and provide such great benefits that now everybody has a phone. The software-as-a-service model is a similar phenomenon in that SaaS fills a void that could not be filled in any other way. SaaS is an inexpensive way for India’s businesses to have good-quality software that makes their businesses much more efficient and effective.

SaaS will be even more of a game-changer in India than it has been in the United States. It’s not just because of the pricing model; it’s also because the time is right. SaaS products are proliferating at the same time as ubiquitous mobile devices and the flood of Big Data are causing companies to look for new business solutions. As businesses embrace SaaS for their critical business functions, they get more velocity in their business, which makes them more competitive in their markets.

Local products — made by local Indian software companies that understand the local business needs — are a key factor in the growing use of SaaS solutions. Improvement of Internet services in India has also contributed to SaaS adoption. A third factor is the fear that not using SaaS solutions will cause a company to be an outlier. This was not the case a couple of years ago. So it’s a tipping point-phenomenon coupled with more availability of local products at a very attractive price point.

A major transition is underway in the technology stack. In the life cycle of the software industry, new solutions typically come from startups and small companies as opposed to large companies. We see this happening again today in India where the small, nimble startups are shifting their business to create SaaS solutions. Even so, some startups are dramatically more successful than others, due in large part to two enablers.

Read the Complete article at Sandhill.com

And You thought Friday was just a Day of the Week…

What happens when six engineers with cushy corporate jobs decide to invest? And that too in a Whiteboard and an imported Smartphone. Yes, they grow up into mobile entrepreneurs creating android apps that millions the World over love. If you are reading this on an Android device, quickly search for “Friday” on the Play Store.

Today, we hear their story in an interview with the Chief Executive of DexetraNarayan Babu.

ProductNation: Welcome to Product Nation. We are really looking forward to hear your story. So please share all the excitement and emotion that you have gone through in your journey as a product entrepreneur.
Narayan: I was mentored by my Dad. My father used to be a CDAC Scientist (it was called ER&DCI then) and a member of the team that created Param – The First Supercomputer from India. So, Binary and Boolean Logic all came to me at an early age.

When I came into college after school, I realized that I could do technical stuff well. I could code and program, but I had no people skills for a startup. But I always wanted to do a startup like my father. So this startup was always playing at the back of my mind. While at college, I did create a portfolio of websites and apps (they were called applications then) but never made money as I hesitated to ask.

After college, I joined Bosch as an engineer. Bosch had an amazing culture and it gave me a nice view of the Corporate World. But it is a great place for the 9 to 6 crowd. The only problem – I did not find the work challenging enough. In three years at Bosch, I also found a good team. And it dawned on us that we better do something before growing old. So I pulled in two hackers from my college and two others from Bosch.

At that point in time, there was no idea. But we were all excited about doing a startup. So we began thinking, what to do?

Luckily, at that time Android was just announced. Incidentally, I was working on the WinCE and few other mobile platforms at Bosch. The platform was unwieldy and so I began experimenting with Android. The Android interface and features were just fascinating. At that time, Google conducted the android app developer contest and giving away US $ 100,000 as prize. We could not participate in the first edition, but it was a fascinating entry into the world of apps. We saw very simple apps being awarded US $ 50k and US $ 100k. We found it pretty cool and thought that we should do something around Smartphones.

Our first investment was in a Whiteboard, to brainstorm what all could be done on a smartphone. So, we listed down all the features of the smartphone and we realized that there were 7 – 8 data point sensors on a smartphone compared to almost no features in a desktop computer. And then in an “Aha” moment we thought we could do something using all those sensors – A diary of one’s life maybe. We really went crazy with the possibilities. Crazy because at that moment neither we had any smartphone nor there was any android phone available in the market.

Coming back to our senses, we decided to create a basic version and participate in the next Google App Developer contest. We only had a month and we were able to put together a crude version of it, and eventually we didn’t submit our app. When the winners were announced, we saw that most of the apps were very basic and not as grand as what we were thinking. This made us think if our idea was too grandiose. But, we worked on it and after two months of effort, we felt that we could pull it off.

ProductNation: What was the name you gave to this initial app?

Narayan:
 First, we called it Chrone (for chronology) and then owing to the confusion with the Google product, we called it “Instinct”.

ProductNation: Ok. Please continue
Narayan: So, it was end of 2009 and we got our first android phone. It was an HTC phone with a 3.5 inch screen – a rare feature then. We ordered it from the US and specially took leave from office to receive the courier. And when tried running our app on it, it crashed. That is when we realized that emulator and the phone were different. So we had to work on the app, again.

Meanwhile, the android app marketplace had reached thousand apps or so. We decided to try something simpler. An android game which was a cross between pacman and Mario. We called it tintumon. And we launched that game. The app became popular, got 10,000 download and qualified for the Google Nexus One phone prize. It went on to do about 60,000 downloads. This was a big morale booster. That was when we started thinking about leaving our jobs and doing this full time. I had support from home and my other team members though concerned were way too excited about starting up.

This is when things got serious and we got our 6th founder. I reached out to one of our college mate who had done his MS and asked him to help us raise some money so that we could move into a place and leave our jobs. Basically he was the business guy we wanted in our tech team. He spoke about the app to a number of people and then finally an Investor who used to do only investments in rubber estates got really excited about it and put twenty lakhs into the business. So we quit our jobs and started Dexetra in April, 2010.

For a couple of months, we played around with all the mobile platforms – iOS, Blackberry, Android. We used to make apps, sell them for Free and also some for paid. One of our iOS games apps became the top 50 paid app in the App store. It was exciting. But it was time to focus on the main idea – Friday.

In the end of 2010, we shut down everything else and just focused on Friday. In two months we released the Alpha version and the users loved it. It was like SIRI but almost a year before SIRI. We got covered by Techcrunch and it was good fun speaking to all who covered us.

In this version, all the data was being collected locally on the phone. So the next step was to move all this data to the cloud. And we started working on the Friday cloud part. Quickly we realized that we had to build for scale. Since, we had been in a startup mode for close to a year, we understood issues of scale. So we consumed lot of information on scalable architecture to put it all together.

This was the time we met Vijay (Founder – One97). He instantly liked the cloud first version and the next day he signed the term sheet and put in a crore of rupees. This way we could recruit a couple of more guys into the team. Around this moment, the product was a little more than fifty percent ready. But in cases like this it is the last 20% that really takes the time.

ProductNation: Was that time when the Apple SIRI came by? Tell us about it and the eight hour SIRI bet.
Narayan: Yes. It was October 2012 when Apple launched SIRI. The World was touting it as the next big thing. We were irritated as we had been trying to put something together since 2009. And SIRI was not even close to what we had planned for Friday. But yes, conceptually similar.
Internally, we took up a bet to create an app exactly like SIRI in 8 hours flat. We managed a version and called it IRIS. It wasn’t for the public marketplace, but a tweet was picked up and it went viral. So we released it into the public marketplace. It got a million downloads in the first month, two million the next. Then, Micromax Aisha also leveraged IRIS.

IRIS becoming a sort of distraction and it was becoming hard to manage two entities. After spending a couple of man months, the team gathered itself and decided to focus most of its efforts into Friday. And it made good sense since we were just ten people then.

ProductNation: What prompted your team not to pursue IRIS?
Narayan:  One, we were occupied with Friday. Second, for IRIS to scale, it needed a strong content pipeline. This would have entailed partnering with a number of content providers. All this meant a different set of skill sets. That doesn’t mean we gave up on iris, just that we put most of our tech energy behind Friday.

ProductNationSo, you guys got back to Friday.
Narayan: Yes. February 2012 end, we launched Friday beta on a closed basis. After four months of improvisation based on user feedback, we released it into the Android marketplace in July, 2012. Friday sees about 100 million documents in the cloud with a 30% daily user engagement.

ProductNation: What should we expect from Friday, going forward?
Narayan: We are focusing on making smartphones intelligent. We are making efforts to put context into smartphones with powerful software. e.g. your smartphone instead of showing “recently dialed numbers” should prompt you with the names of people depending on the context of location or time.

Those are the things we are working on. Plus we are working on building the UX as well. You would soon see a major new release on Friday.

ProductNation: Are you doing the UX internally?
Narayan: I am doing it myself, internally. It is challenging to get external UX guys working on a consistent basis. And UX needs sharp focus. And it has been painful to source UX guys. I have tried freelancers and outsourcing it to experts overseas. The problem of getting UX done outside the team, is to really get the job done. The creative guys are a different set altogether and they have a challenge adhering to timelines. Also, the external guys are not able to experience first-hand what is happening with the product. So, you need a UX person internally who can feel what’s happening.

ProductNation: Narayan, why the name Friday? Do you guys take off that day, is it?
Narayan: We wanted a simple one word name. We started with Chrone that came too close to Google Chrome. We tried Instinct. Then we hit upon Friday. It sounded crazy, it sounded bizarre, so it sounded good. ‘Friday’ sounded happy and it went well with the established meaning of “Man Friday”. And above all, it was easy to remember unlike the names of other apps, which you struggle to recollect at the right time.

ProductNation: What has been your learning’s during this journey? What would you like to share with an entrepreneur?
Narayan: We went all in. There was no plan B. We went all in with one plan. Many people ask us quizzically that you spent two years just building an app. But we did that and survived well too. It just makes sense to sell out to one meaningful idea.

I like the quote by Drew Houston, the founder of Dropbox – “It is better to fail than building a mediocre product”.

ProductNation: Before we let you go, would you like to share the complexity of your six-member founding team?
Narayan: Yeah. Investors used to express shock on the size of our founding team. Fortunately, inspite of having different backgrounds and personalities, all of us were excited about the startup. We do have differences but is mostly around the product. And most powerful bonding force is that all differences apart, we all want to build something really praiseworthy. This single thought ties all our efforts together.

ProductNation: Narayan, thank you for talking to Product Nation.
We wish the entire Dexetra team many more million downloads soon.

Expect a Microsoft, Google or facebook out of India? Won’t happen unless we THINK BIG!

When VCs from the US flooded into India about 5 to 10 years ago, they were expecting to invest and make happen, a number of Microsofts, Google and facebooks!

They ended up buying shares of existing public companies and became more of Private Equity investors rather than VCs who could put in a 1$ in 100 companies and have 5 block-busters like facebook or Google that returned $100 each! That’s the nature of Venture Capital – taking risks on 20 companies so that one becomes facebook or Google or Microsoft and makes up for all the losses in those 19 other companies.

This is as much an indictment of Indian start-ups not being bold enough as much as VCs turning into Private Equity investors. They did not find enough companies that were bold enough or thinking big enough!

First, some disclaimers! If you are building an Indian version of a successful US company or targeting a unique vertical in India with your SaaS or Cloud solution or trying different Consumer plays, all success to you! You can still be very successful and thrive!

This is not an indictment of the Software Services business! It helped enormous numbers of Indians stabilize and improve their lives and others that depend upon them, building a huge economy around them. But we need to move to the next stage. The thinking needs to be different this time. When the first services companies like Infosys, Tata Burroughs and Tata Consultancy Services started, you needed lots of  money to buy mainframes and minicomputers. Today, it does not take the same amount of resources to get started in the software business. The only thing that will make a difference now are Innovative Ideas!

This article is for people who wonder what it takes to build a global blockbuster like facebook and Google!

That has to do with NOT THINKING BIG ENOUGH! It does not mean just doing products for the Global Market or going for a huge blockbuster IPOs! That may come later. It has everything to do with going after BIG problems. Big What-Ifs! Big Experiments, Big Thinking!

This has to do with our general instinct to jump too quickly into “how do I make money” and risk aversion and the inability to postpone these questions and address some fundamental problems and find innovative solutions for them, not thinking about immediate payoffs!

Opportunities are everywhere if ONLY we stop being followers and start being leaders! In Consumer oriented startup companies, everybody is still dealing with information – work and social in many different platforms – smart phones, laptops, desktops. They are trapped in multiple formats that are incompatible with each other and causing endless frustration. Documents, status updates, photographs, videos, spreadsheets, presentations, databases are all still in many repositories leading us to waste enormous amounts of time just shuffling all of this!

On the enterprise side, Cyber Security is still a large, large problem! Nuclear facilities, Utilities, Government systems of every kind are subject to Cyber Terrorism more than ever before!

Companies are moving rapidly to the cloud; cloud security is even more scary than internal systems that can be cutoff from external access if someone suspects break-ins. Credit card information and online banking have only led to even less secure places to handle money.

Two days ago Amazon Web Services in Virginia ground to a halt because a monitoring system developed a memory leak and brought many, many companies’ servers to a grinding halt for hours!

Backups and Disaster Recovery are still problems that many enterprises have not found good solutions for yet, globally! There are technologies like Cassandra databases that can have three or four copies of the database automatically synched and updated. No need for backups – they are already backed up in real-time in multiple locations. You can almost build indestructible computing if you wanted to, if you choose cloud resources in multiple geographic locations, even across continents. The video streaming service NetFlix already does this with databases synched up across the Atlantic between US and European Data centers of Amazon!

Companies are just getting into collecting lots of Big Data – social media mentions of their companies, products, detailed information about what every visitor to their websites and online presences did when they are there and wondering how to use all of this information with customer and order information they already have in traditional database systems.

All of these are BIG PROBLEMS begging for BIG THINKING!

When Thinking Big, pick any of these above or other problems, they could lead to the next Microsoft, Google and facebook! It requires an obsession with ONE of those problems and a relentless drive to solve that, first.

When you solve big problems, you don’t need to worry about sales, investors and global blockbuster status. They will come as surely as night after day and high tide after low tide.

We have a tendency to equate technical knowledge, prowess and hacking with success. In software services they are important. But not elsewhere in the software business!

They are important tools but not your mission when it comes to building fast growing, large companies. You need to address problems and create innovative solutions that have clearly identifiable benefits. The benefits are the only things users care about. They do not care about Java or Python or Oracle or MySQL. They have a problem; do you have a solution?

The thing that is holding us back is our own thinking! Getting out of that box is the first step towards THINKING BIG! Thinking big takes the same amount of effort as thinking small but the payoffs are disproportional.

Think little goals and expect little achievements. Think big goals and win big success – David Joseph Schwartz.

Pallav Nadhani’s list of Top 10 mistakes entrepreneurs make…(Part 2 of 2)

Pallav Nadhani, CEO and Co-founder of FusionCharts, was just 17 when he started the data visualization product company in 2002. The company today is one of India’s most successful product stories and happens to be one of the first Indian start-ups to have caught the eye of the Obama administration. FusionCharts has a user base of 450,000 across 118 countries, and the company celebrates its 10th year of existence on October 22, 2012. In the second half of a two-part interview with pn.ispirt.in, Pallav Nadhani tells us about keeping a product relevant in the constantly evolving market, how he communicates with team members and what it’s like to work with teams from two very different cities in the country! 

This is part 2 of the interview titled – Find out what inspired Pallav Nadhani to start FusionCharts on their 10th anniversary.

How do you manage to keep your product relevant in the market? How do you keep yourself in the game even after going through the process of scaling and maturing? Usually after this it’s a case of either re-birth or death, right?

For us a couple of things work well : there are nearly half a million developers out there who use our product, so we get more feedback than we can sometimes handle and implement. This is huge repository for us to understand where the market is going. There are some developers out there saying in a few months or few years we see ourselves using the product this way so we require this functionality. So there’s a lot of consolidated information that we get from both our existing clients and prospects, and we add some amount of research and gut-feel to this so that we can improve the different versions.

If you had to pick three functions in the company which are critical for a product company like yours, which ones would you choose?

I’d choose engineering and marketing together first. In our case, marketing and engineering go together because the value proposition and positioning done by the marketing team is done in consultation with the engineering division. Similarly, right from day one of product development, marketing defines the product features such as labels so there is a lot of interaction. I would choose the support function next, because ours is a B2B product so implementation does require some amount of support.

What are some of the tools and techniques that you use internally to keep communication alive? What are some the things that you do keep communication going right from the top to the most junior most employee?

The advantage we have is that we are a really small company — we have a team size of about 60 people. So anything that’s happening gets communicated within the team quite easily. The next advantage that we have is that most of the team is based in Kolkata, and I like to say that the Kolkata team is more like family because of the inherent nature of the city! In terms of messaging, We’ve divided teams into functions so if a team needs to know something, we tell the team head and the trickle down effect just ensures the right communication. All the heads are supposed to involve their team members, and this is relatively easy because there are only four to five members per team. Then we have layers of communication protocols built over this, so engineering has its own system which is visible to everybody within the team. For cross-company communication its either face-to-face or I send out an e-mail — since this is quite rare (like once in three months), people do read them. I also ensure that I ask a question or engage the reader somehow so that I know who is involved. We also use Yammer, the enterprise social network. Another thing we do is celebrate birthdays, so this becomes a one or two hour event which does involve some discussion.

How do you manage the culture difference between Bangalore and Kolkata? Both the cities and their people are very different — Bangalore is more fast paced and Kolkata is not like that.

Like I mentioned, I tend to say Bangalore is the team, Kolkata is family! There are some inherent challenges : when we brought in some senior management in Kolkata there were some issues as most people were used reporting to me and suddenly it wasn’t the case anymore. Now the senior management is trying to put in more systems and processes so that that Kolkata team can work more professionally! There was some resistance, of course, but once they were able to see the value of the changes then things changed. Now there is data to react to, and today they are able to pin-point where things went wrong and fix it. Overall, I’ve not had any major problems. Initially, for the first six months I had to go to Kolkata once every week to act as a mediator. Now I go once in six months so I guess that really shows how far we’ve come!

So FusionCharts has now matured and you’ve been in the business ten years — what are the nuggets of information you’d give product company entrepreneurs out there?

There is nothing thats right or wrong. It depends on the context of the product your are building. A few things that you need to get right are even if you are a developer, you need to focus on packaging your product. Packaging and marketing has an important role to play as no product can really be sold on it’s own — there are only exceptional cases like popular apps which get downloaded millions of times. Team building is another important thing — once your product starts getting traction, your company will get split across so many different functions that you will require help with this. You’d like to believe that you can solve every problem, but it’s not very scalable. Specifically in India, an entrepreneur requires a lot of focus. If there’s a new product idea every week and there’s no focus on one thing, it can disastrous. For the last ten years, we’ve just focussed on data visualization — despite the audience we have and despite our capabilities, we’ve not ventured into other areas  because we know that this particular category has a lot of scope and if we branch out into too many other things we won’t be very good at any one thing.

What is the leadership style that you employ? What do people typically have to say about your leadership style?

I would say mine is more of a laissez-faire style of leadership. It’s very different from the concept that people are not trustworthy. I prefer not micro-manage — I believe in giving people work and a broad outline and let them go about it. At the end of it I’ll tell them how I feel about what they’ve done.

Pallav Nadhani’s list of  Top 10 mistakes entrepreneurs make

  1. Not delegating early and enough for the fear of things not getting done correctly
  2. Hiring senior people who don’t fit and have different expectations and lesser hunger
  3. Not setting culture right – focus is more oriented towards result, than behavior. Also setting unreasonable deadlines which set the wrong culture.
  4. Using the same team to deliver multiple products – bandwidth bottleneck
  5. Not establishing clear communication channels and ownership between teams when moving from generic team members to specialists.
  6. Not getting enough exposure locally for hiring — like the first 4-5 years I lived a cocooned life in Kolkata.
  7. Not bringing in a sales team early — they bring in more deals to close and also free up your time
  8. Losing focus in between — too many products and extensions
  9. Not saying ‘no’ enough to many employee and customer requests
  10. Building custom additions for a few customer along with the main product — upgrade issues.

Your neighborhood mom-and-pop Shop is an SBI Branch, thanks to EKO

It is not a usual day if Bill Gates pays a surprise visit to your office. And if the Microsoft Founder spends two hours understanding your business and your product, you might be onto something with a potential to change the world. Hence, the ProductNation team caught up with the Co-Founder and CEO of EKO – Abhishek Sinha – to find out if the World had indeed changed since the Gates visit.

ProductNation: Abhishek, thank you for speaking to Product Nation. Please share the story of your entrepreneurial journey.
Abhishek Sinha: After completing my engineering, I joined Satyam in 2000 and was posted in Hyderabad. Following the usual onboarding and training; I was deputed to Jaipur to work on assignments at couple of mobile network operators. I was never great with coding, however, it was on these projects, that I met Abhilash with whom I co-founded my first company – 6d Technologies.

There was no detailed business plan, we just wanted to do something on our own and since we were in the mobile space, we decided to hit it out by offering communication solutions to Mobile Network Operators through 6d Technologies. At that time, we were pretty much newbies, no family or home pressures. So it was manageable to do all this crazy stuff.

As we went about building 6d, we were on the ropes most of the times. It was a deal that we got from Oman that swung our fortunes. I still remember the generous credit line that our travel agent offered us. For some reason, he believed in us more than we did on ourselves. So this is how, it all started happening for me.

ProductNation: Wow. Thanks for sharing, Abhishek. Who inspires you?
Abhishek Sinha: (In a Snap) – Mahatma Gandhi. I am also encouraged by Dhirubhai, Google founders, Mark Zuckerberg and Flipkart founders. Gandhiji certainly has been a huge inspiration.

ProductNation: Tell us about EKO. How did you start? Why the name?
Abhishek Sinha: Abhinav (Co-Founder & COO – EKO), my brother and I were in Bangalore. We saw a number of people approaching a nearby shop to recharge their mobile phones. Perhaps, oblivious to the shop owner, there was a sophisticated m-commerce transaction happening, right there. It was this exchange that prompted us to think about EKO with the objective of providing financial access to the unbanked. So I left 6d to build EKO.  As far as the name is concerned, it stands for “Echo” and luckily we managed a shorter form.

ProductNation: Please tell us about your customers and your future plans with EKO.
Abhishek Sinha: Our initial market was focused towards Delhi-NCR, Bihar and Jharkhand. We have expanded to 11 states in the country. Importantly, this financial year we are expanding to Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and industrial areas in North India – Baddi, Ludhiana, Amritsar, Panipat, Sonipat, Murthal, Jaipur, Kanpur, Lucknow among others.

Over the last one year, the model has matured and stabilized. Since June this year, we are adding in excess of 200 outlets per month and should close this year with more than 5000 EKO outlets. The idea is to increase our presence and be a dominant player in the domestic money transfer space. Money transfer segment is attracting tremendous interest from the unbanked population. Moreover, fungibility provided by EKO is fueling it further.

ProductNation: Abhishek, what have been you BIG lessons in your entrepreneurial journey? And what would you like to share with other young entrepreneurs?
Abhishek Sinha:  People say that you should not repeat mistakes, but I must confess that I have repeated mistakes. It takes a lot of time to understand and comprehend that you are committing and repeating mistakes. It takes a while.

The advantage of starting young is absolutely unmatched. Start Young. The naivety and foolishness helps. It is important to persevere and consciously exhaust ones options to loose. At 6d, there were situations when survival itself was at stake and such episodes would worsen the family pressure to get back to a job. However, doing my own thing was and remains my identity, very thought of going back to a job would make me shudder. I thought I would lose my self-respect. I was very conscious that I must exhaust all my options to lose. One has to increase their stakes substantially. One has to be continually hungry.

I never thought in college that I would be an entrepreneur and start a company. Even five years ago, if somebody had told me that I would have to raise tons of money to get this company started and bring it stability, I would have never started. I had no experience of a consumer-facing or payments business. Sometimes following your heart and taking the plunge without analyzing, helps. With EKO, we lost money and we could have gone down-under but I had to take my chances. There is no harm in facing failure. The loss due to failure is measurable, but the gains of success are gratifying and limitless. This is what I have experienced in my last ten years as an entrepreneur.

Product Nation: Abhishek, very profound insights indeed. We wish you and EKO super success.

Find out what inspired Pallav Nadhani to start FusionCharts on their 10th anniversary.(Part 1 of 2)

Pallav Nadhani, CEO and Co-founder of FusionCharts, was just 17 when he started the data visualization product company in 2002. The company today is one of India’s most successful product stories and happens to be one of the first Indian start-ups to have caught the eye of the Obama administration. FusionCharts has a user base of 450,000 across 118 countries, and the company celebrates its 10th year of existence on October 22, 2012. In the first part of a two-part interview with pn.ispirt.in, Pallav Nadhani talks to us about what inspired him to start FusionCharts, the importance of marketing in a commoditized industry and how the company believes in training and retaining its talent.  (Don’t forget to download the Free copy which has the complete story of FusionCharts)

Pallav, congratulations to your team and you on FusionCharts’ 10th anniversary. We’re curious to know — when did you decide that you wanted to get into the product space and start a company? What was your inspiration?

I call myself an accidental entrepreneur for a reason. When I started thinking about FusionCharts, I had no idea I was going to develop a product or even run a company. It was something I wanted to do for pocket money! In 1999, I was in Class 11 when I came across this site that accepted innovative articles on technology. By then I had already done a bit of coding (there’d been a computer in my house since I was eight years old) and I was using Microsoft Excel in school, and I hated the boring charts that the program created. I thought — why not convert those boring Excel charts into a lively format for the web? So I wrote some code, and then wrote an article based on that code which got picked up by a website called ASPToday.com. I got paid $1500 for the article which is a lot of money when you’re 16! I got a lot of feedback from developers on the article, and it got me thinking: if so many people were interested in the concept and were giving me inputs, why not consolidate all the modifications and start selling the concept as a product? So there was no market research as such. However, I did make a clear-cut decision when it came to choosing between developing a product and a service: despite the fact that I had some experience working in a service model (I worked in my dad’s web design firm), I knew that there were problems like working with only one client at a time, and the fact that people didn’t trust you as a 17 year old! So for a while my dad fronted me: he would bring in the clients and I would do the work.

 

In a product company there are guys who develop and then the guys who package, market and sell the product. Traditionally, in the services model it’s the developers who tend to take center stage but in the product space people usually say it’s the marketing which makes the difference. What’s your take on this?

I absolutely agree. When we set up FusionCharts we were very aware of the fact that we were going to be operating in a commoditized world. Our top five competitors are amongst the biggest companies today: Microsoft, Yahoo, IBM, Google and Adobe give competing products for free and there are others who also offer charting libraries like ours. On an average, our product is 10 to 100 times more expensive than our nearest competitors. Still, we’ve grown in this fiercely competitive market, and this is not just because of our product: it’s because of our positing, our story telling and the whole packaging. Other products out there directly appeal to developers who often have limited budgets when it comes to purchasing components — but our approach involves appealing to the level just above the developers who are often the decision makers and this has worked well for us.

Much of a product’s success relies not only on quality of the development but also on the kind of people who are part of the team. You have guys who are hesitant about joining a smaller setup because they are worried about stability and are unsure about joining a place which gives no guarantee whether it will exist the next year or not.  What’s your strategy when it comes to hiring good people?

The only time when we found trained talent is when we shifted to Bangalore, but this was for the middle management level. We’ve found it quite rare to find ready-made talent at the development level. At this level, almost everybody who is on our team has come to us fresh out of college, and have been trained by us for anywhere between 12 and 36 months. We’ve trained them with the approach of building the product. This is important because one of the issues we had with people who came from bigger companies was the difficulty they had in adjusting to the fast and agile environment of a product company like ours. So we decided it would be better to concentrate on hiring high intensity guys, giving them some light projects to work on and training them so that they’d be good to go in a couple of years. This also helps create a sense of loyalty because we’re taking them on board at a very early level in their career and this means we have a lower attrition rate.

You make a very valuable point. So what do you feel about the fear in the market about spending time training freshers and then watching them jump ship after spending about two years with you?

I look at it as an engineering challenge: if a guy is willing to move to the competition, what are the incentives that he’s getting? Nobody moves from a product company to a services company purely because of the type of work. Sure, some companies sell to employees just like they sell to customers and the employee may want to opt for a bigger brand name but this is often at the cost of his or her engineering lifestyle. What you do at a product company like ours is something that you can talk about to your friends, you know where your code is going, you have a complete idea about the product and you can proudly point out what your contribution is. In a large organization this is not really the case, and often you don’t have a clear idea of why you are writing a certain piece of code, and you may not be able to talk to your friends about what you do because of confidentiality clauses. Whereas here, you’re given a problem statement and given the freedom to figure out how you want to approach it. Then there are things like the US President Obama selling FusionCharts in 2010 to design digital dashboards for the federal administration. These things inspire confidence in employees, and give them a level of satisfaction. So the employee has to make a decision if this is something he or she wants to give up, as well as give up working with a team he or she has grown comfortable with.

Read the second part of the interview where Pallav shares the list of Top 10 mistakes entrepreneurs make…(Part 2 of 2) 

A great product ends up creating its own market by typically disrupting an industry or creating a new one – Archit Gupta, ClearTax

Here’s an interesting story about a young entrepreneur who put his personal life ahead of cool, calculated business decisions and went on to create a very successful IT Products Business.

Going back in time – background

Archit graduated in Computer Science, from IIT Guwahati and a doctoral level programme in the same subject thereafter, from Wisconsin University. The inherent brilliance and appreciation of things technical, was always there. This story is about taking all this, harnessing it and shaping a model which has all the trappings of a sound product.

A chanced paper publication and presentation thereafter – on network storage and efficiency – earned him many laurels, the least among them being offered a job in a start up, the brainchild of an equally brilliant professor from Princeton. Archit became part of a Core Engineering Team, which positioned the company in its own niche space. A solid reputation built on strong execution capabilities, was what this team epitomised. He put in a two-and-a-half year stint, and later on the company was later taken over by another Fortune 500 Company, EMC. By this time, the spirit of entrepreneurship had germinated inside and was beginning to take shape.

It was in late 2010 that he was faced with a peculiar dilemma – whether to stay back in the Valley or return to India and start off on his own. Personal reasons outweighed business instincts, which necessitated a move back to India. By then, the decision of going the entrepreneur-way was already taken. It was now only about that – what, and when. Having a father, who was a partner in a large CA Firm, helped in sharpening Archit’s laser-like focus and identify addressable gaps in a market dominated by the Chartered Accountants.

The Idea

The existing products (filing of returns) in the Compliance Space (Taxation) weren’t very good and there was a huge potential to design a better product by introducing an Americanised approach to solving bandwidth issues – offer a cloud-based solution. The CA profession has often been cited to be traditional in its approach, and this product which was conceptualised, was doing just the opposite. Break the traditional way of thinking. It offered a platform based product, leveraging future technologies, like SaaS based models on cloud or even build mobile applications in the times to come by. These were the early days of Clear Tax – simple to use and largely influenced by a product called Turbo Tax, from US. A major game-changer was about to enter the market.

The Product – ClearTax

It is not just a rudimentary e-return filing software, but designed to also educate the user and help him / her make informed decisions. Today, the bulk of users are in the Consumer segment but a drive is on to gain larger share of the pie, in Enterprise space too. The company has tied up with Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) and leveraging this to build strong networks in the user community. Initially there were teething problems of migrating from desktop based applications to a cloud-based one but surprisingly the adoption has been very quick. Presently, the penetration has been in the top 8 -10 cities in India, which means there is a huge potential for growth, in untapped markets.

An Excel sheet based tool provided by Income Tax Department has captured about 40% of the market share and the balance is fragmented, which is where ClearTax operates. In terms of usability and many other critical functionalities, ClearTax is way ahead of even the market leader. On-line filing has been made free for women, which in a way is giving back to the community.

The enterprise segment is what will bring in margins and needs to be penetrated with precision. Reaching out to SMBs is a daunting task. Considering their size and nature of operation, the focus of entrepreneurs is really running their day-to-day show. They are too busy in doing what is their core activity – trading or manufacturing. Not being tech-savvy either, puts an additional pressure on marketing such products which are Internet-driven. The earlier adopters of ClearTax were Chartered Accountants, who in turn promoted it aggressively within their own community. It was also recommended by CAs to the SMB business. Otherwise through traditional advertising route, it is a very costly proposition.

The Product Eco-System and what it takes to succeed

A good product is something which users want. Of course, not all user desires are desirable (say recreational drugs for instance), so when we talk about a good product, it has to be consistent with the founders’ value system.

For success in the market, there are other factors at play :

  • The size of the market has to be sufficiently large for the startup to be able to deploy sufficient engineering, sales and marketing resources, for its success. Software Products interestingly can attack large adjacent markets, so this is something a startup doesn’t necessarily have to worry about when they start creating a product.
  • A great product ends up creating its own market by typically disrupting an industry or creating a new one.
  • Marketing: There is a lot of noise in the market place. Users have to be convinced to invest time/money/effort into this new thing. This requires very good marketing.
  • A good product comes with incentives for its own growth in the marketplace.
  • Good Engineering: Less important in the beginning, but becomes very crucial as the product gains traction.

Incumbents and competitors have to be out-executed.

We signed off with Archit Gupta, Founder of ClearTax, a very successful IT Product in its domain. The spirit of entrepreneurship is oh-so-intoxicating. Entrepreneurs are essentially dreamers who have the ability to make others believe in their dreams.

Here’s wishing the team at ClearTax a great year ahead.

The future is bright for product companies, Vishnu Dusad, MD, Nucleus Software

Vishnu R. Dusad is one of the founders of Nucleus Software Exports Ltd, and is presently the company’s Managing Director. An alumnus of IIT-Delhi, Mr.Dusad’s vision and passionate belief in product development has helped establish Nucleus Software Exports Ltd as a leading, global software product company. His experience spans areas of software development, creation of strategic alliances, business development, and strategic planning. In an interview with pn.ispirt.in, Mr. Dusad talks about why Nucleus Software Exports Ltd ventured into the product space, transitioning from a services company to a product company and the importance of family support for entrepreneurs

You started Nucleus in 1996, at a time when the flood was to get to the US and provide software services. You went against the tide and concentrated on doing something in products. What caused you to go for this differentiator – why did you get into products?

The whole world at that time was talking about how no products were coming out of India and this was something that was a point of concern for me. So initially we got into this space to demonstrate that India can create world class intellectual property, and that’s what drove us into this direction. At the board level, we took a very conscious decision that despite the fact that the trend was to concentrate on providing services outside the country, we would not have any revenue coming from this area because it would divert our attention from the focus on products.

So one factor was this conscious decision to do something different – but then why choose financial services?

This was actually coincidental because we started Nucleus Software in 1986 and for a good six or seven years, Citibank was our only customer. So we felt that this gave us a good understanding of the banking and financial services sector, and it felt like a good idea to stay in that domain and build a product.

The risk factor at that time must have been high, so what was your mind-set at that time?

You’re right; the risk factor was very high. We came out with an IPO, where shares cost 50 a piece and soon after — thanks to our product focus — our revenues fell to a share price of 9! We were not used to the stock market, and we did feel bad because of the huge risk we had taken. However, at the same time we were confident that we could do a reasonable job in the track we had chosen. There were a few weak moments when we had doubts in our minds, like the time when we lost an order for an account we had pursued for nearly seven months. At times like that we questioned if we were doing justice to shareholders’ money, but we felt we had the spirit to make things happen.

After six years of having Citibank as your primary customer, you took a call to do product development and you probably had to undergo a major shift in thinking internally. How did you tackle the HR factor – how did you get your people to re-align to a product development methodology? Or did you get a different team in place?

I would say that both things happened: we brought in a separate team who was oriented towards product development. That team started working on new products, independent of our services revenue. In terms of our services team, we thankfully were never into the business model where we worked according to x number of people multiplied by y hours per person per month – we were always into projects. In fact, we were already used to taking on fixed-price projects right from 1991 – 1992. So we were confident about making the transition into a product company, because our services team was halfway oriented with achieving something within a limited time frame. To make sure that the customer was always deriving business benefits out of the work we were doing, we never talked to technology teams alone. We were always talking to the business team also. So to align the entire company around product development wasn’t very difficult.

How did you manage talent in those days? Did you have to invest a lot in terms of re-training them?

For hiring talent, we went to places like the Delhi College of Engineering and BITS – Pilani. I would say re-training wasn’t such an issue because thanks to our business practices and opportunities, we’ve had a whole lot of people who stayed with us for a decade and more. This helped us ensure that domain and business knowledge was retained within the company, and could we could preserve the shape of the project.

As a company who focused on aspects like cash-management and products around core-banking loans, there was competition on the landscape. There were other smaller niche players like CashTek, as well as Citibank’s own captive business in the country. So was competition ever a concern or did you feel the pie big enough? How did you tackle expansion?

Around the time our product was ready, we were already aware that our existing competition were running their own product. We did fear that the market wouldn’t be big enough in the country and that we’d have to go overseas – but we were wrong. Surprisingly, when we bumped into one of our earliest customers at a conference and we showed them our product, they started asking “Where were you all this time?” So this gave us the perspective that there was definitely a sizeable market, and we didn’t have to be unnecessarily concerned.

In terms of growing the company, we recognized that the existing team comprised mostly hard-core techies, so we brought in sales people to join the team. Initially, we were worried that to drive sales they would need to have an exhaustive understanding of the domain and the technology – but again we surprised to find that it was not such a big challenge. We then started participating in events, we started making cold calls and we were able to bid in the international markets. We started having MNCs signing up with is in India, who would be happy with our work and would recommend us to other companies and we’d get the next contract. This took us to the next level globally, and that’s how we built up the business. We didn’t hesitate in investing in marketing – as our services business continued to grow, we ploughed that revenue into the marketing.

There’s been a lot happening in the product development space, like a change in momentum and the development of the SaaS model. You’ve been a solid player in the market now so how do you see the future for product development? How do you see product companies going forward?

We believe the future is bright for product companies as long as they are committed to understanding the domain and are focused on providing meaningful solutions. There will be no dearth of market for companies like these. There is a lot of technological development happening, so it’s up to these product companies to leverage these developments on and on-going basis. This should be with the focus of using this technology for customers in your domain and continue to add value.

You’re an alumnus of IIT-Delhi, and there are a lot of companies today who are getting into the product space in the start-up category who are being led by CEOs from IIT. So in a sense, they are jumping straight into forming companies. Would you say this is a big asset, since they come already orientated with technology and create companies that offer a technology solution?

I would say that if you have a bent of mind which says that “I have to add some value to society” and you are passionate about it, then experience is immaterial. There are global brands which have been created by dropouts, or people who have just graduated. According to me, the only components that are required are the passion to make a successful product and the passion to bring value to customers.

You are an entrepreneur who took the plunge at a time when the future wasn’t very clear. Today, there are a lot of guys who are standing on the edge of this pool are undecided about whether they want to jump in or not. What are the things that you would advise them to keep their eye on when they start a product enterprise?

Depending on the age at which the individual is getting into the software product development space, family support is very important. This is different before marriage and after! This support may not be just financial, but also psychological. In my case, I was fortunate since I was not required to get a job and straight away start sending money home – I could choose to do whatever I wanted. I came from a family where getting into business was the thing to. So I am lucky to have a family who provides me with unflinching support. So this is one core component, in my opinion.

Another thing you need to have is the passion to make things happen, because you can’t afford to give up. There will be enough moments and situations where you will ask yourself, “Am I going to pass this hurdle or will I collapse on the way?” You need your internal support system to let yourself and everyone around know that you are going to deal with this. You also need to give this support to customers and show them your internal strength to inspire confidence. Go in with the intention to understand your customers’ needs and bring your technical (and other) capabilities to fulfill those needs. It’s natural to feel that when you have created something, customers are going to line up at your door but it doesn’t work like that. You need to find out what the pain areas are and what customers are excited about.

5 key take-aways from Vishnu Dusad’s interview

No products were coming out of India and this was something that was a point of concern for me.

To make sure that the customer was always deriving business benefits out of the work we were doing, we talked to both technology and business teams together.

Nucleus Software Exports Ltd.’s business practices and opportunities helped retain talent for considerable periods. This ensured that domain and business knowledge was retained within the company.

The future is bright for product companies as long as they are committed to understanding the domain and are focused on providing meaningful solutions.

The only components that are required are the passion to make a successful product and the passion to bring value to customers.

 

 

Towards a glorious product nation!

The biggest success of the IT industry in the country has also been its biggest challenge. The phenomenal rise of the Software services industry led by global leaders like TCS Cognizant, Infosys and Wipro and smaller firms like HCL, Mindtree, Zensar and Hexaware in hot pursuit has put India in pole position in the global IT services industry. Driven by NASSCOM with visionary leadership and full support from industry stalwarts, the services industry really gathered momentum towards the end of the last century and has never looked back since.

However many other industry segments have struggled to emerge from the shadow of the spectacularly successful services sector. Business Process Outsourcing looked like a rising star for some time followed by Engineering Services, Media and Animation and other sub-sectors but could not match the rise or the stature of IT Services. The Products industry too has had many good starts, but in a manner similar to India’s cricket openers these days, have spluttered too fast and too frequently. Barring a few successes like i-Flex, Tally and some products that germinated within the comfort of a services company, the product story from India has just not done justice to the energy enthusiasm and incredible talent that lies in this country.

There are many green shoots emerging in the hitherto parched product landscape that give us all hope that the story is destined to change and move towards a happy ending with a more focused approach to developing a new eco-system for the product industry. In the last few years, outstanding leadership of the product forum in NASSCOM and the very successful product conferences in Bengaluru have demonstrated the high energy that flows through the veins of the product entrepreneurs today. The opportunities too abound with the ubiquitous spread of the internet and cloud computing enabling “made in India” products to quickly expand their availability globally and Software as a Service enabling new methods of consumption and commercial relationships.

However mere enthusiasm does not create a product nation and there needs to be concerted efforts to build a sustained focus on the products industry. There is a need to work with this fledgling sector from the early stages of creating programs in Universities to build a product mindset to developing incubation centres and a more vibrant angel network that will enable thousands of start-ups to bloom. Since significant Government and corporate support for Indian products will also be needed akin to the support given in China to the local industry, serious efforts will be needed to educate the bureaucracy in Delhi on the very specific needs of the product companies so that enabling policies and programs are created and funded by Government.

The opportunity for the products industry to be a hundred billion dollars strong by the time India turns seventy-five in 2022 is very real but we will need to bring all the players together and build a strong platform to propel the industry into the stratosphere of global success!