An Afternoon With Don Norman In Bengaluru

Are you building products for the everyday user? Is it becoming harder and harder to manage complexity while maintaining usability? How do you design a sustainable system for a complex multi-stakeholder environment? How do you teach a user to use your product with good design? How do you reinvent an established business model in light of rapidly evolving markets and technological possibilities? How do you design a product to be truly human-centric?

If any of these questions sound relevant to you, here’s an opportunity to seek answers on 22nd February in Bengaluru! 

About Don Norman

Dr Don Norman is a living legend of the design world having operated in the field for over 40 years. He has been Vice President of Apple in charge of the Advanced Technology Group and an executive at both Hewlett Packard and UNext (a distance education company). Business Week has listed him as one of the world’s 27 most influential designers. Dr Norman brings a unique mix of the social sciences and engineering to bear on everyday products. At the heart of his approach is human and activity-centred design, combining knowledge of cognitive science, engineering, and business with design.

Presently, he is Director of the recently established Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego where he is also professor emeritus of both psychology and cognitive science and a member of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He is also the co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, an executive consulting firm that helps companies produce human-centred products and services.

ProgrammeTalk

Don will share valuable insights about his interactions with Indian people, products and experiences.

Fireside Chat

An informal discussion with Don about his learnings and experiences spanning his long and illustrious career.

How to participate?

We’re inviting engineers, product managers, designers and everyone else who is building for large scale impact.

If you would like to further your understanding of human-centric design and hear straight from the horse’s mouth, please register here by 18th February. (An invite will be sent out to selected participants by 21st February)

A Platform is in the Eye of the Beholder

The distinction between whether you are building a platform or a product should be made primarily to align your internal stakeholders to a particular strategic direction, as we learned in the recent iSPIRT round table.

[This is a guest post By Ben Merton]

“So are we a platform, or are we a product?” I said last month to my co-founder, Lakshman, as we put the finishing touches to our new website.

We’d been discussing the same question for about a year. The subject now bore all the characteristics of something unpleasant that refuses to flush.

However, the pressure had mounted. We now had to commit something to the menu bar.

“I think we’re a product.”

“But we want to be a platform.”

“Okay, let’s put platform then…But isn’t it a little pretentious to claim you’re a platform when you’re not?”

Eventually, we agreed to a feeble compromise: we were building a platform, made up of products.

Job done.

At least, that is, until #SaaSBoomi in Chennai last month.

Manav Garg, who has considerably more experience than both me and Lakshman at building platforms, put up the following slide:

Product = Solving a specific problem or use case

Platform = Solving multiple problems on a common infrastructure

“Here we go again”, I could hear Lakshman say to himself after I Whatsapped him the image.

“That’s his definition. It doesn’t have to be ours,” he replied tersely, “What does he mean by ‘use case’, anyway?”

“I don’t know.”

I’m in awe of the entrepreneurs who seem to bypass these semantic quandaries.

You know, the ones who say stuff like “Stop thinking so much. Just sell stuff. Make customers happy.”

For me, these are the type of questions I need to chew over for hours in bed at night.

I was therefore excited to be invited to the iSPIRT round table at EGL last week, where the topic of discussion was “Transform B2B SaaS with #PlatformThinking”. The roundtable was facilitated by iSPIRT mavens Avlesh SinghShivku Ganesan & Sampad Swain.

It takes a lot to get 20 tech founders & their leaders to travel after work from all over the city to sit in a room for three hours with no alcohol.  Fortunately, the organisers had promised a lot.  The topic description was:  

“Enable a suite of products, high interoperability, and seamless data flow for customers. This peer-learning playbookRT will help product to platform thinkers develop an effective journey through this transformation” was the topic description.”

The meeting was governed by Chatham House rules, meaning we can’t discuss the name or affiliation of those involved.

However, along with our founder mavens of large, well-known Indian technology businesses, there were 15 or so less illustrious but equally enthusiastic founders (& their +1s), including myself.

The discussions started with an overview of the experiences and lessons that had been learned by some of those who had successfully built a platform.

“We define a use case as a configuration of APIs…” the founder of a cloud communication platform started. This was going to be interesting.

“Why did you define it that way?” I asked.

“Based on observations of our business.”

I began to understand that the term ‘use case’ was being used differently by platform and product companies.  

“A use case of a platform is usually tangential but complementary to the core business. A use case for a product is something that just solves a problem,” someone clarified, guaranteeing me a slightly more restful night.

As the discussions continued, it also became clear that there were a large number of possible markers that distinguish a platform from a product, but there was no agreement on the exact composition.

To resolve the impasse, we listed out the names of well-known technology companies to build a consensus on whether they were a platform or a product.

Suffice to say, we failed to reach any consensus.  The conversation went something like this:

“Stripe?”

“Platform.”

“Product.”

“A suite of products.”

“AirBNB?”

“A marketplace.”

“A marketplace built on a platform.”

Etc etc

Even companies that initially appeared to be dyed-in-the-wool platforms like Segment and Zapier eventually had someone or the other questioning the underlying assumptions.

“Why can’t they be products?” murmured voices of dissent at the back of the room.

This was going nowhere. A few people sought solace from the cashew nuts that had been placed on conference table in front of us.

“Does the customer care whether you’re a product or a platform?” someone said.

Finally, something everyone could agree on. The customer doesn’t care.  Your product or platform just needs to solve a problem for them.

“Then why does any of this matter at all?” became the obvious next question.

“I found it mattered hugely in setting the direction of the company, especially for the engineering and design teams,” the Co-Founder of a large payment gateway said.

“And investors?”

“Yes, of course. And investors. However, I think the biggest impact that our decision to build a platform had on my business was in the design more than anything else,” he explained, “For the engineering team, it was just a question of ‘we need this to integrate with this’. But the UX/UI and the…language… needed to be thought about very carefully because of this decision.”

“So, in effect, the platform/product debate is primarily a proxy for the cultural direction of the company?”

“Exactly.”

Logically, therefore, the only way you can really understand whether a company is a platform or a product is to have an insight into the direction its management wishes to take it.

A company might appear to be a product from the outside but, since it intends to evolve into a platform, it needs to start aligning its internal stakeholders to this evolution much earlier.

“So, a startup like mine should call itself a platform even if we are years away from actually being one?” I asked cautiously after I had enough time to process these insights.

“Yes,” was the resounding, satisfying response that virtually guaranteed me a full night’s sleep.

“And when should the actual transition from product to platform happen?”

“Well, Jason Lemkin says it should happen only when your ARR reaches USD 15m-20m, but that’s just another of those rules that doesn’t apply in India,” the co-founder of a marketing automation software said.

“The important thing is that this transition – when it does happen – is very hard for businesses,” he continued, “There is a lot of risk, but it opens up new revenue streams, helps you scale and build a moat.  We hugely benefited from our decision to become a platform, but it was tough.”

It’s unlikely that we completely resolved the product vs platform debate for all founders. However, I feel that all of us came away from that meeting with a deeper insight into the subject.

Ultimately, whether you’re building a product or a platform will depend on your perspective. Most companies lie somewhere in between.

Where does your company lie on this sliding scale? And if that makes you a platform vs. a product, does it make any difference to the way you think?

We want to thank Techstars India for hosting the first of the roundtables on this critical topic.

Ben Merton

Ben is a Co-Founder of Unifize, a B2B SaaS company that builds a communication platform for manufacturing and engineering teams. He is also a contributor for various publications on business, technology and entrepreneurship, including the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and Business Standard. You can follow him on LinkedIn here, and Twitter here.

© Ben Merton 2018

Featured Image: Source: https://filosofiadavidadiaria.blogspot.com/2018/01/o-principio-mistico-da-verdadeira-causa.html

SaaS 3.0 – Data, Platforms, and the AI/ML gold rush

An impending recession, the AI/ML gold rush, Data as the new oil, SaaS Explosion…
The SaaS landscape is changing rapidly and so are the customer expectations!

18 months ago, I came across a message that India is a premier hub for global B2B SaaS, just like Israel is a hub for cybersecurity. At first, I did not think much of it, but after having interacted with many SaaS founders and observing their painful growth journey, I realized the potential in these words. Yet, a series of market shifts are changing the world order of SaaS putting at test India’s position as a premier hub for SaaS.

TL;DR

The SaaS 3.0 market shifts are changing how global customers perceive value from SaaS products:

  • Tools which provide higher levels of automation & augmentation are valued more.
  • Comprehensive solutions in place of single point products is a preference.
  • Interoperability across the gamut of systems is an expected norm.

Startups, you have to build your new orbit to solve for these evolving needs. First, focus on delivering a 5x increase in customer value through an AI-enabled proposition. Next, build your proprietary data pot of gold, which can also serve as a sustainable moat. Lastly, leverage platforms & partnerships to offer a suite of products and solve comprehensive customer scenarios.

Read more on how the convergence of market shifts are impacting SaaS 3.0.

Quick background

While the SaaS industry began over 2 decades ago, many say it is only now entering the teenage years. Similar to the surge of hormones which recently brought my teenage daughter face-to-face with her first pimple. And she is facing a completely new almost losing battle with creams and home remedies. In the same vein, convergence of several market shifts – technology, data, economics, geopolitics – combined with deep SaaS penetration is evolving the industry to a new era. This rare convergence – like the convergence of the nine realms in Thor Dark World – is also rapidly changing how customers perceive the capability of SaaS products.

Convergence #1 – SaaS penetration is exploding!

I learned from Bala at Techstars India that they received a record number of applications for their first accelerator program. 60% of these were building or ideating some form of B2B SaaS offering. It would seem to justify the message above, that SaaS in India has grown legs, building a true viral movement, replicating momentum. Yet in these large numbers, there is also a substantial ratio of repetitive products to innovations. Repetitive in say building yet another CRM, or mindlessly riding a trend wave such as chatbots. Without an increased pace of innovation beyond our existing successes, we cannot continue to be a premier hub.

In 2018 SaaS continued to be the largest contributor to cloud revenue growth at 17.8% (it was down from 20.2% in 2017). Competition is heating up in all categories of SaaS. 10 years ago, an average SME customer was using 2 apps, now it averages at 16 apps. 5 years ago, a SaaS startup had on average 3 competitors, now a SaaS startups averages at 10 customers right out the door. Many popular SaaS categories are  “Red Oceans”. Competing in these areas is typically on the basis of features or price, dimensions which are easy for any competition to catch up on. There is a need for startups to venture deeper into the sea and discover unserved & unmet customer needs in a “Blue Ocean” where they have ample opportunity to fish and build a sustainable moat.

AppZen started with an opportunity to build conversational chatbots for employees, helping them in an enterprise workflows on various aspects like sales & expenses, and several other companies are doing the same. But as they went deeper to understand the customer pains, they were able to identify an unserved need and pivoted, leveraging the same AI technology they had built, to solve for T&E expense auditing. Being a first mover to solve this problem, they are carving out leadership in this underserved space and is one of the fastest growing SaaS startups of 2018.

Convergence #2 – Impending recession in 2019/2020!

On average recessions come every four years and we are currently 9 years from the last recession. The war between the Fed vs the US govt on interest rates, the recent US govt shutdown on a frivolous $B wall, the tariff and trade war between the US and China, are all indicative reasons for an upcoming recession. In such an uncertain economy, customers experience reduced business activity and alter their behavior and preferences:

  • Customers will become crystal clear about satisfying their core needs versus nice-to-haves.
  • They will seek high automation tools to help not only cut costs but also to make strategic decisions for an upside.
  • Many will prefer a suite of tools instead of buying multiple single point products.
  • They will also slow down POC, investment, partnership activities.

In a way, this is mixed news. Companies often pursue low-cost digital products with SaaS being a natural choice. However, combined with the competitive SaaS landscape, businesses become very selective. To be recession-proof startups must:

  1. Collaborate and partner with other vendors to build a shared view of the larger customer scenarios. Innovate to share (anonymized) data/intelligence.
  2. Partner to deliver a comprehensive solution instead of solving for a gap. 
  3. Invest & experiment in building solid AI-enabled automation for improving efficiency and decision making.

E.g. Clearbit’s approach to provide API and allow customers to leverage the value it provides, by integrating with common platforms such as Slack or Gmail which customers frequently use. In this approach they are reducing app switching and embedding the niche usecase into the larger customer workflow environment.

Another e.g. Tact.ai is helping increase sales team efficiency and bring visibility of field data to the leadership team. They are not only solving the core salesforce data entry problem for field sales, but with better data in the system, businesses now get better visibility about sales activities and can take effective strategic decisions.

Convergence #3 – the AI/ML gold rush!

During the dot com & mobile rush in early 2000, I watched many a friend jump ship to build a startup. At that time the web was flush with rich content, but the mobile web was in its early growth and innovative ways to bring web content onto mobile phones were being explored. Automated conversion of HTML to WML was a hot topic. But the ecosystem conditions were not aligned for completely automated WML transformations. Several startups in this space including my friend’s startup shut for such reasons.

More recently in 2016-17 Chatbots were projected to be the next big thing and it too suffered from similar misalignment. Chatbots were the first attempt to bring AI/NLP for customer interaction. However, they lacked the depth of ecosystem conditions to make them successful. 

  1. Bots were treated as a panacea for all kinds of customer interactions and were blindly applied to problems. 70% of the 100,000+ bots on Facebook Messenger fail to fulfill simple user requests. This is partly a result of not focusing on one strong area of focus for user interaction.
  2. Bots were implemented with rule-based dialogues, there was no conversational design built into it. NLP is still in its infancy and most bots lacked data to provide meaningful interactions. They were purely a reflection of the level of detail and thought that went into the creation of the bots.

AI/ML, however, is suffering from the “hype” of an “AI/ML hype”. There is a considerable depth within the AI/ML ecosystem iceberg. Amazon, Google, Microsoft…OpenSource are continuously evolving their AI stack with higher and higher fidelity of tools & algorithms. You no longer need fancy degrees to work the AI tools and automate important customer workflows or scenarios. 

Yet it is easier said than done. Most startups on the AI journey struggle to get sufficient data to build effective ML models. Further, data privacy has increased the complexity of sharing data, which now resides in distant silos. While internal proprietary data is a rich source of patterns, often times it is incomplete. In such cases, entrepreneurs must innovate, partner, source to build complete data as part of their data collection strategy. A strong data collection strategy allows for a sustainable moat. 

AIndra multiplied 7000 stains into 7M data points by splitting into microdata records. DataGen a startup in Israel, is generating fake data to help startups train models. The fake data is close enough to real data that the use is ethical and effective. Startups like Datum are building data marketplaces using blockchain to democratize data access. 

As mentioned many of the AI tools are limited in their constraints. Meanwhile, getting familiar with the capabilities and limitations of the necessary tools will help form a strategy path to solving the larger customer scenarios. 

Tact.ai faced the constraint by the limitations of the Alexa API. However, instead of building their own NLP they focused on working around the constraints, leveraging Alexa’s phrase based recognition to iteratively build value into their product. During this time, they continue to build a corpus of valuable data which will set them up for high growth when the NLP stack reaches higher fidelity.

Solving for the Hierarchy of Customer Needs

The convergence of SaaS penetration, AI/ML, data & privacy, uncertain economy & global policies… the customer expectations are rising up the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. SaaS 1.0 was all about digital transformation on the cloud. SaaS 2.0 focused on solving problems for the mobile first scenarios. In the SaaS 3.0 era, the customer expectations are moving to the next higher levels. They will:

  • Prefer comprehensive solutions in place of single point products.
  • Expect interoperability across the gamut of systems.
  • Need tools which provide higher levels of automation & augmentation.

For startups who want to fortify their presence in the SaaS 3.0 era :

  1. Begin with a strong AI value proposition in mind, regardless if it is AI-first or AI-second. Articulate the 5x increase in value you can deliver using AI, which wasn’t feasible without AI. 
  2. Build your proprietary data pot of gold. And, where necessary augment with external data through strategic partnerships. A strong data lever will enable a sustainable moat. 
  3. Leverage platforms & partnerships to offer a suite of products for solving a comprehensive customer scenario.

Remember it is a multi-year journey, Start Now!

 

I would like to acknowledge Ashish Sinha (NextBigWhat), Bala Girisabala (Techstars India), Manish Singhal (Pi Ventures), Suresh Sambandam (KiSSFlow), and Sharad Sharma (iSPIRT) who helped with data, insights and critical feedback in crafting this writeup. Sheeba Sheikh (Freelance Designer) worked her wonderful illustrations which brought the content to life. 

Interesting Reads

SaaSy bear SaaSy bear what do you see?

Shifts for SaaS - SaaSy Bear

I see 3 shifts critical for me!

Taking a line from the popular Brown Bear children’s book, I believe that our SaaS startups have a real opportunity to leverage some leading shifts in the global SaaS evolution. While there are many areas of change – and none less worthy than the other – I am highlighting 3 shifts for SaaS (tl;dr) which our entrepreneurs can actually work with and help change their orbit:

  • Market shifts with AI/ML for SaaS to build meaningful product & business differentiation,
  • Platform Products shift to transform into a multi-product success strategy,
  • Leveraging Partnerships for strategic growth and value co-creation.

Some background

I joined iSPIRT with a goal to help our community build great global products. I believed (and still do) that many entrepreneurs struggle with the basics of identifying a strong value proposition and build a well thought out product. They need strong support from the community to develop a solid product mindset & culture. My intent was to activate a product thinkers community and program leveraging our lean forward playbooks model.

I had several conversations with community members & mavens on playbooks outcomes and iterating our playbook roundtables for better product thinking. I realized that driving basic product thinking principles required very frequent and deeper engagement with startups. But our playbooks approach model – working in a distributed volunteer/maven driven model – is not set up to activate such an outcome. Through our playbooks model, our mavens had helped startups assimilate best practices on topics like Desk Sales & Marketing, something that was not well understood some years back. This was not a basic topic. The power of our playbook RTs was in bringing the spotlight on gaps & challenges that were underserved but yet highly impactful.

As a product person, I played with how to position our playbooks for our entrepreneur program. I believe our playbooks have always been graduate-level programs and our entrepreneurs are students with an active interest to go deep with these playbooks, build on their basic undergraduate entrepreneurship knowledge, and reach higher levels of growth.

The product thinking and other entrepreneurial skills are still extremely relevant, and I am comforted by the fact that there are many community partners from accelerators like Upekkha to conclaves like NPC and event-workshop formats like ProductGeeks which are investing efforts to build solid product thinking & growth skills.

As the SaaS eco-system evolves, and as previous graduate topics like desk sales & marketing are better understood, we need to build new graduate-level programs which address critical & impactful market gaps but are underserved. We need to help startups with meaningful & rapid orbit shifts over the next 2-3 years.

Discovering 3 Shifts for SaaS

Having come to this understanding I began to explore where our playbooks could continue to be a vibrant graduate-level program and replicate our success from the earlier playbooks. Similar to an entrepreneur’s journey, these three shifts became transparent through the many interactions and explorations of SaaS entrepreneurs.

Market Shift with AI/ML for SaaS

There is no doubt that AI is a tectonic shift. The convergence of big data availability, maturity of algorithms, and affordable cloud AI/ML platforms, has made it easy for SaaS startups to leverage AI/ML. During a chance roundtable learning session on Julia with Dr. Viral Shah & Prof Alan Edelman, it was clear that many entrepreneurs – head down into their growth challenges – were not aware of the realities behind the AI hype. Some thought AI/ML should be explored by their tech team, others felt it required a lot of effort & resources. The real challenge, however, is to discover & develop a significantly higher order AI-enabled value to customers than was feasible 2 years ago. While AI is a technology-driven shift, the implications for finding the right product value and business model are even greater.

As I explored the AI trend I saw a pattern of “gold rush” – build a small feature with rudimentary AI, market your product as an AI product… – making early claims with small changes which do not move the needle. It became clear that a step-by-step pragmatic thinking by our SaaS startups was required to build an AI-based leapfrog value proposition. This could help bring our startups to be at “par” and potentially even leap ahead of our global brethren. Here was an opportunity to create a level playing field, to compete with global players and incumbents alike.

To validate my observations, I did quick small research on SaaS companies outside of India on their approach with AI. I found quite a few startups where AI was already being leveraged intrinsically and others who were still trying to make sense. Investments varied from blogging about the AI trend, branding one as a thought leader, to actually building and delivering a strongly differentiated product proposition. E.g.:

There are no successes, yet! Our startups like Eka, Wingify, FreshWorks, WebEngage… have all been experimenting with AI/ML, stumbling and picking themselves up to build & deliver a higher level of value. Some others are setting up an internal playground to explore & experiment. And many others are waiting on the shore unsure of how to board the AI ship.

How do we enable our companies to create new AI playgrounds to analyze, surface, validate and develop higher order customer values & efficiencies? To chart a fruitful journey with AI/ML there are many challenges that need to be solved. And doing it as a group running together has a better chance of success.

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

Shift to Platform Products

As market needs change, the product needs a transform. As new target segments get added different/new product assumptions come into play. In both these scenarios existing products begin to age rapidly and it becomes important for startups to re-invent their product offerings. To deal with such changes startups must experiment and iterate with agility. They require support from a base “internal” platform to allow them to transform from a single product success strategy to scaling with multiple products strategy.

This “internal” base platform – an infrastructure & layout of technology components to interconnect data & horizontal functional layers – would help to build & support multiple business specific problem-solution products (vertical logics). The products created on such a platform provide both independent as well as a combined value proposition for the customers.

Many startups (Zendesk, Freshdesk, Eka, WebEngage…) have undertaken the painful approach of factoring an internal platform to transform their strategy & opportunity. Zoho has been constantly reinventing itself and launching new products on a common platform, some of which are upending incumbent rivals in a very short period of time. WebEngage transformed itself from a “tool” into an open platform product.

“As the dependency on our software grew, customers needed more flexibility to be able to use their data to solve a wide range of business problems…significant difference in the way we build products now. We have unlocked a lot of value by converting ourselves into an open platform and enabling customer data to flow seamlessly across many products.” – Avlesh Singh, WebEngage

The effort to build an internal platform appropriately architected to support growing business needs (many yet unknown) is non-trivial and requires a platform thinking mindset for increased business development. It must be architected to allow rapid co-creation of new & unique product values in collaboration with external or market platforms. This can help the startup be a formidable player in the growing “platform economy”.

Leveraging Potential Strategic Partnerships

A strategic partner offers 2 benefits for startups. First is the obvious ability to supercharge the startup’s GTM strategy with effective distribution & scale. How does one make a strategic partnership? Pitching to a strategic partner is very different from pitching to a customer or investor. PSPs look for something that is working and where they can insert themselves and make the unit economics even better. 

“I thought I knew my pitch and had the details at my fingertips. But then I started getting really valuable, thought-out feedback…I had to focus on pitching to partners, not customers.” – Pallav Nadhani, FusionCharts

The second leverage with a partner is the ability to innovate in the overlap of the partner’s products & offerings and the startup’s product values. A good partner is always looking for startups which can co-create a unique value proposition and impact an extremely large customer base.

“…we still have only three four percent market share when it comes to customers. So if we have to participate we have to recognize that we are not gonna be able to do it alone we’re going to have to have a strategy to reach out to the entire marketplace and have a proposition for the entire marketplace…you need to (do it) through partnerships.” – Shikha Sharma, MD Axis Bank

Both these partnership intents if nurtured well can bring deep meaningful relationship which can further transcend scale into a more permanent model (investment, M&A…).

Working with the 3 Shifts of SaaS

While each shift is independent in its own importance, they are also inter-related. E.g. an internal platform can allow a startup to co-create with a partner more effectively. Partners are always interested in differentiated leading-edge values such as what is possible with leveraging AI/ML. Magic is created when a startup leverages an internal platform, to co-create a strong AI-enabled value, in the overlap & gap with potential strategic partners.

And that’s what I see

I see a vibrant eco-system of SaaS startups in India working on creating leading global products. Vibrancy built on top of the basic product thinking skills and catapulted into a new orbit by navigating the 3 shifts.

“Reading market shifts isn’t easy. Neither is making mindset shifts. Startups are made or unmade on their bets on market/mindset shifts. Like stock market bubbles, shifts are fully clear only in hindsight. At iSPIRT, we are working to help entrepreneurs navigate the many overlapping yet critical shifts.” – Sharad Sharma, iSPIRT

Through our roundtables, we have selected six startups as the first running group cohort for our AI/ML for SaaS playbooks (Acebot, Artoo, FusionCharts, InstaSafe, LegalDesk & SignEasy).

If you are hungry and ready to explore these uncharted shifts, we are bringing these new playbooks tracks for you.

Please let us know your interest by filling out this form.

Also, if you are interested in volunteering for our playbook tracks, we can really use your support! There is a lot to be done to structure and build the playbook tracks and the upcoming SaaSx5 for these shifts for SaaS. Please use the same form to indicate your support.

Ending this note with a sense of beginning, I believe that our startups have a real opportunity to lead instead of fast-follow, create originals instead of clones. They need help to do this as a running group instead of a solo contestant. It is with this mission – bring our startups at par on the global arena – that I am excited to support the ProductNation.

I would like to acknowledge critical insights from Avlesh Singh (WebEngage), Manav Garg (Eka), Shekhar Kirani (Accel Partners), Sharad Sharma (iSPIRT). Also am thankful for the support from our mavens, volunteers & founders who helped with my research, set up the roundtables, and draft my perspective with active conversations on this topic: Ankit Singh (Wibmo/MyPoolin), Anukriti Chaudhari (iSPIRT), Arvi Krishnaswamy (GetCloudCherry), Ganesh Suryanarayanan (Tata GTIO), Deepa Bachu (Pensaar), Deepak Vincchi (JuliaComputing), Karthik KS (iSPIRT), Manish Singhal (Pi Ventures), Nishith Rastogi (Locus.sh), Pallav Nadhani (FusionCharts), Praveen Hari (iSPIRT), Rakesh Mondal (RakeshMondal.in), Ravindra Krishnappa (Acebot.ai), Sandeep Todi (Remitr), Shrikanth Jangannathan (PipeCandy), Sunil Rao (Lightspeed), Tathagat Varma (ChinaSoft), Titash Neogi (Seivelogic), and many other volunteers & founders.

All images are credited to Rakesh Mondal 

A Look Back At How Startup India Has Eased The Journey Of Startup And Investors

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It’s been two years since the fateful 2016 budget which recognised “Startups” as a separate breed of companies unto themselves, demanding bespoke treatment from the government and authorities. The clarity brought forth helped quell the nerves of both companies and investors, who had to otherwise resort to exotic exercises, supplementary structures, and platoons of professionals to keep their entrepreneurial dreams alive.

As we all await with bated breath for the slew of reforms expected of the Finance Minister, it behoves us to see how far we’ve come and how much further we need to proceed so that a billion dreams may become a reality.

This article is the first part of a two-part series which explores how Startup India has eased the friction in the Startup ecosystem so far, from an investor’s perspective with the second part talking about the next step of reforms which would have a multiplier effect on the ecosystem.

Flywheel of Funding

More often than not, any coverage about fundraising covers the journey of startups and entrepreneurs and the travails of raising their multimillion dollar rounds. But there exists another dimension to this story, that of fund managers raising their own funds. A large section of the investor community was elated that the government recognised this oft-ignored story and created the Rs 10,000 Cr (USD 1.5 billion) Fund of Funds managed by SIDBI which invests into SEBI registered AIFs and Venture Capital Funds.

This approach seeks to galvanise an ecosystem through a flywheel effect, instead of gardening it via direct intervention. The 10,000 Cr corpus can help seed AIFs worth Rs 60,000 Cr in India, which when fully deployed, is estimated to foment 18 lakh jobs and fund thousands of Indian startups. By contributing a maximum of 20% of the corpus of a fund, many fund managers can hasten they fundraise and concentrate more on helping their portfolio companies raise, instead of competing with them.

The Fund of Funds has invested into 88 AIFs so far, thus galvanising more than 5,600 Cr (USD 873 million) worth of investments into 472 Startups.

Bringing back tax breaks, not a back-breaking Tax

The Government’s support of Indian investors found its way into the Income Tax Act, with several measures to incentivise investments into the Indian Startup ecosystem, such as:

  • Insertion of Section 54 EE, which exempts Long-Term Capital Gains up to Rs 50 lakhs provided it has been invested in the units of a SEBI registered AIF
  • Insertion of section 54GB, which exempts Long-Term Capital Gains of up to Rs 50 lakhs provided it been invested into the shares of a Startup which qualifies for section 80IAC
  • Clarifying that the conversion of debentures or preference shares to equity shares will not be considered as a transfer and thus subject to capital gains at the point of conversion (the entire Venture Capital industry is based on convertible debentures and preference shares and this move has settled long-standing disputes regarding the instruments of investments)
  • Issuing a notification that the dreaded angel tax will not apply to shares issued at a premium to domestic investors by those startups who qualify under the DIPP scheme (although the scope of this needs to be extended to rid the spectre of angel tax that haunts various investors and entrepreneurs)
  • Clarifying that the stance of the assessee in categorising the sale of listed securities held for more than 1 year as Capital Gains or Income from Business can’t be questioned by the taxman
  • Changing the definition of a capital asset to include any securities held by a Foreign Portfolio Investor, thus removing the friction arising from asset classification (a similar provision is sorely needed for domestic hedge funds and Category III AIFs)

Capital without Borders

The Startup India scheme over the past few years has rolled out the red carpet to foreign investors while rolling back the red tape. The success of this is evidenced by the percentage of funding foreign capital represents in the Indian startup ecosystem, which is 9 times higher than domestic capital investment.

Some of the initiatives include:

  • Liberalising Foreign Direct Investment into most sectors including financial services, single brand retail, pharma, media and a host of other sectors up to 100% in most areas
  • Abolishment of the Foreign Investment Promotion Board
  • Relaxation of External Commercial Borrowings (ECBs) for Startups for up to USD 3 million
  • Allowing for issue of shares for non-cash consideration to non-residents under the automatic route
  • Marshalling foreign investment into Indian entities primarily for the purpose of investing in other Indian entities has been brought under the automatic route as opposed to the previous government approval route
  • Dismantling the approval mechanism for the transfer of securities by a Foreign Venture Capital fund to an Indian resident
  • Moving most of the filings (FCGPR, FCTRS, etc) to an online window managed by the RBI (ebiz.gov.in)

Well begun is half done

The government’s efforts to improve life for Startups in investors have begun to bear fruit in tangible ways as evidenced by the reduction in the number of companies seeking to have a Delaware entity with Indian operations. The recent leapfrog in the “Ease of Business” rankings also stands testament to this.

The Government must now seek to consolidate all these gains and clarify its stance and the stance of the tax department on long pending issues which have been a bane to all startups. While we have miles to go before we sleep, we must look back and take note of what we’ve achieved before we seek to scale greater heights.

This post has been authored by Siddarth Pai of 3one4 Capital

Build On IndiaStack – Venture Pitch Competition

Announcing ‘Venture Pitch Competition: #BuildOnIndiaStack’

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

Who are we looking for?

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

 

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

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

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

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

Through this event you have an opportunity to receive:

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

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

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

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

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

Customer Purchasing Insights For eCommerce Software

SoftwareSuggest is an online software discovery & recommendation platform. We provide free consultation on software and help SMEs select the right software for their organization. As a part of our business, we collect customer requirements, which when analysed can serve the industry with deep insights. Our learning for the eCommerce industry are presented in this report.

Below mentioned are the major takeaways:

  • There has been a hike in the number of organisations opting for online eCommerce solutions for their business. According to our findings a whopping 80% of the total are first time users.
  • A good number of e-commerce software buyers are located in Delhi, Maharashtra and Karnataka region.
  • We discovered that organizations prefer buying SaaS based over installation based software. The data suggest 69% prefer SaaS based.
  • The spread and depth of functionalities of software is the most prominent factor influencing the purchase decision of the software buyers.

Let us have a look at the fascinating figures that we discovered.

1.Industries turning up to use eCommerce software

industries using ecommerce software

We found that 35% of the software requirement was from apparel industry and next position is occupied by food and grocery item business (i.e. 20%). Rest is shared by miscellaneous industry like electronics, footwear, etc.

2. From which state maximum requirement was generated?

According to our observation, maximum eCommerce software buyers are from Northern region with Delhi (16%) being the kingpin in the list. Next place is shared by Maharashtra (12%) and Karnataka (13%). It can be a good decision for eCommerce companies to invest their resources in these region.
state wise lead distribution

3. What do the users prefer- SaaS based vs Installation based?

There has been a drastic shift in the number of users who prefer using SaaS based software when compared to server based software. It has been found from our data that 70% users prefer SaaS based or online software over the server based software.

User preference- SaaS based v/s Server based

4. What all features a buyer looks for in eCommerce software?

Nowadays, software buyers look for the product which can help them facilitate their customers in smarter way. With the advancement in technology, they look for sundry features which are stated as follows:4

5. What is the preferred budget in which buyers purchase the software?

For SaaS based, it has been found that on an average 50% of software buyers look for an ecommerce software between ₹1000 to ₹3000 per month. Around 18% buyers are willing to spend ₹3000 to ₹7000 per month. Only 7% can spend above ₹10000.

budget criteria for SaaS based sofwtare

For server or installation based, it has been discovered that 80% of software buyers prefer buying in the budget range of ₹50,000 – ₹1,00,000. Around 10% prefer buying in ₹100000- ₹150000. Remaining can afford up to ₹150000 and above.

budget criteria for server based software

6. New users v/s Existing users

new user v/s existing users

Around 20% of the software buyers are the existing users who reach us due to following reasons:

  • They are not satisfied with the services provided by their software providers
  • Their software does not have the latest features and they want to upgrade their software

In regards with the changing market conditions, there has been a hike in the number of retailers opting for online stores for their business. We discovered that around 80% of the software buyers bought software for the first time.

7. What is an average number of products showcased by merchants using eCommerce software?

average number of products showcased by ecommerce merchants

The data which has been collected by our team revealed that 17% of merchants prefer showcasing around 100-200 products on their website. And 21% of merchants prefer showcasing between 200-1000 products. Only 8% showcase above 1500 products which is quite less.

8. Time taken to decide on ecommerce solution

Our findings suggest that for a large percentage of software buyers, it takes around 3 to 5 weeks to decide on a solution.

time to find ecommerce solution

9. Number of demos before buying a software

We found that maximum software buyers usually take around 3-4 demos to decide on a solution.

no. of demos before buying

10. Factors influencing purchase decision

A software buyer looks for multiple features before purchasing any software.The depth and spread of functionality of the software is one of major factors. Have a glimpse at the other factors.

factors influencing purchase decision

The report has been generated from the data being collected by SoftwareSuggest team.

You can give your valuable thoughts about the report in the comment section below.

Also, find the list of eCommerce software solution with software demo, comparison chart, and many other values to help yourself select the right software.

List of 11 #Madeinindia Applicant Tracking Software

Applicant tracking systems are great for HR professionals and recruiters. Even though there are disputes about their effectiveness as they target keywords more than candidate skills, it greatly helps recruiters to minimize the size of talent preposition without wasting their precious time and energy. Statistically speaking, ATS has saved over 20% of companies’ precious time during the recruiting process. Moreover as per careerealism “75% of large companies uses ATSs to review a resume before a recruiter sees it”. By seeing the above stats you can easily analyze how ATS is a must for every organization in this highly competitive business scenario.Indian Applicant Tracking Systems

To simplify your talent pool acquisition, here is a list of some of the Top Indian Applicant Tracking Software (In no particular order):
Resumefox: It is an innovative and easy to use recruitment software that saves the hiring time and cost by a whopping 70%. Moreover, through its comprehensive modules an organization can simplify its recruitment process by a great deal. Here are some of its notable features.

  • It helps in building searchable resume databases with zero manual efforts.
  • Reformates multiple resumes at one go and has a strong duplicate resume detection system
  • Generates comprehensive and insightful reports in real time
  • Creates recruitment life cycle and offers detail analysis of employee until joining.

Price:

  • Lite: $699
  • Standard: $899
  • Enterprise: $1199

TalentRecruit:  TalentRecruit is an end-to-end solution that integrates and automates your entire recruitment processes. It helps your company grow by streamlining the recruitment process and reduces operational cost with increase in recruiter’s efficiency. It is highly customized so can fit in any organization. Some of its most enterprising features are:

  • Provides candidate screening and evaluation facility
  • Enrich with facilities such as candidate sourcing, resume management, tracking candidate progression, etc.
  • It provides advanced search algorithms to locate the right candidate.
  • Has an efficient and agile management of jobs and candidates in order to reduce the “Time to Hire”

Price: Rs 1000-1500/user/month

99ATS: It is a web-based recruitment system that helps organization to stream line and manage their recruitment process. Moreover it has easy migration and avoids resume duplication. Here are some perks :

  • Has built-in bulk email to reach out to maximum number of candidates.
  • Imports resumes one by one or in bulk from external resources and organizes with the applicant tracking system.
  • Has comprehensive and reliable social media integration which helps in providing jobs and requirements at one click. (Learn More: How ATS Systems Integrate with LinkedIn)
  • Provides an authentic resume extract facility which by parsing extracts accurate information about the candidate.

 Price: Contact the Website

Zoho recruit: It a Saas based online recruiting system software. Moreover it helps staffing agencies and recruiting departments to track job openings, resumes, candidates, etc. quickly and efficiently. It provides features such as:

  • Automatically captures and import resume information from email attachments, outlook inbox, etc.
  • It lets the recruiters to post job opening on popular sites such as CareerBuilder, Indeed, LinkedIn, etc.
  • Manages candidate activity effectively from one location inside Zoho recruit.
  • Provides facilities like event management and candidate source tracking.

Price:

  • Free edition- Rs. 0 for 1 recruiter
  • Standard edition: Rs. 1500/recruiter/month
  • Enterprise: 3000/ recruiter/month

RecruitPro 360: Highly customized, RecruitPro 360 enhances recruitment process, synchronizes workflow and increases productivity. Moreover it provides high level automaton process which makes the recruitment process burden free and less time consuming. Here are some of its notable features

  • Provides intuitive user interface and automated resume import facility
  • It has comprehensive internet search and match capabilities.
  • It has a sophisticated tracker which tracks the candidate in an unique and user friendly manner
  • Has easy to use data migration facility with zero data entry

 Price: Contact the Website

Talentpool: It helps in executing better joining ratio by quality and streamlined recruitment process. It empowers front line users with better profiles, getting real time visibility of resumes and track key metrics. Take a look at its features:

  • It helps managing multiple sourcing activities, including marketing campaigns to access more candidates.
  • Imports candidate resumes from job portals directly into its centralized database.
  • Works seamlessly with agencies to manage vendors thus reducing time spent by recruiters on candidate status update.
  • Provides effective and authentic duplicate resume detection.

Price: Contact the Website

employAstar: It’s a cloud-based applicant tracking system that gives a 360-degree view of client, candidates, requisition, etc. Its cloud-based solutions are focused shrinking efforts and time of the recruiters while the process is going on. Here are some of its most enthralling features:

  • Provides email alerts and approvals so that organization can send automated emails to their corresponding candidates.
  • Has quick and advanced resume searching technique.
  • Facilities effective vendor management system.
  • Provides easy and integrated platform to simplify the process of corporate internal hiring.

Price: Contact the Website

Adrenalin Recruitment Management: It is the most effective hiring platform which facilitates in tracking of individual skills and transforms recruitment into more simple and effective process. Moreover it effectively manages employee talent thus solves employee retention problems. Some of its noticeable features are:

  • Provides intuitive interface which requires minimal training which makes it easier for candidates and recruiters to operate.
  • Has an unique feature of marking out ideal candidates as per company requirements
  • Provides seamless integrations with job portals and consultants with a single click.
  • Has comprehensive requisition (official order) management and secure data access.

 Price: Contact the Website

TalentCube: TalentCube emphasizes on making the recruitment process simple, easier and cost-effective for organizations. Moreover with the facility of mobile apps, it completes a one-stop solutions regarding recruitment for its users. Take a look at its features:

  • Provides comprehensive sourcing of candidates which reduces the “Time to Hire” scenario by 30-40%.
  • With an extensive social media campaign feature, organizations can connect with their candidates and improve candidate experience.
  • Reduces cost of Hiring with integrations with job boards, social media, email campaign, etc.
  • Has a user centered design which provides complete analysis, user feedback, prototype structure, etc.

 Price: Contact the Website

iHIRING: It is a cloud based assessment platform with in-built applicant tracking system. Moreover with iHIRING candidate assessment can be done in all possible formats viz. code simulation, running text, video and audio. Here are some of its salient features:

  • Provides large database storage so as to maintain the records of past candidates for future referrals.
  • Has IP address blocking facility which prevents unsolicited or unwarranted candidates from accessing published assessment.
  • Provides intuitive dashboard which allows the recruiter to view the entire running process and control hiring process in real time
  • It is the best deal and a comprehensive solution for corporate or in-house HR teams

Price: Contact the Website

Talentnow: It is designed with a view to manage the entire recruitment cycle of job creation to candidate finalization with minimum human intervention. Moreover it is a boon for direct employers, staffing companies and permanent placement agencies. Some of its notable features are:

  • Automatically imports resumes from third party job portals, social networking websites, etc. with almost zero data entry
  • Reduces portal cost by building your own resume database
  • Implements different workflows for different jobs and increases workflow efficiency.
  • Provides team/user-level dashboards of activities to track performance, revenues, usage of resources, etc.

 Price: Contact the Website

For most staffing agencies and recruiting companies, analyzing optimum keywords for candidate search is been a tedious task. But with the increase in usage of comprehensive and authentic ATS systems not only candidate search but also the “Hire to join” time has come down to a great extent. Storing databases and automating the recruitment process has become easy and less time consuming. Moreover before buying any ATS Software you should check this amazing Applicant Tracking Software Buyer’s Guide by Greenhouse, Inc. If you are looking for an open source ATS Software you can find it here.

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

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

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

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

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

Why did you Startup?

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

Why did you choose to address payments?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is scaling a B2B business different from a B2C?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

BrowserStack: Redefining Web Testing, Globally

BrowserStack helps you test your website (internal or public) on 300+ desktop and mobile browsers on different Windows, Mac & mobile OS flavors. It solves the problem of not having to setup and maintain multiple Virtual machines and devices to test your website. Ritesh Arora and Nakul Aggarwal are the founding team members. The strength of BrowserStack currently is 50+ employees.

Introduction

You are a web developer, you develop a piece of functionality and you want to test to make sure it works for everyone, irrespective of operating system, device, or browser they use. In an ideal, standards-driven world, this would be a trivial problem: you code using the standard, you run it by a compiler/validator which makes sure your code indeed follows the standard, and you are all set to go.

Unfortunately, the world of web development is much more complex:

  • All web code (HTML, Javascript) are really instructions to Browser (‘interpreted’ by Browser, rather than being ‘compiled’ into machine code that OS understands), so standards-compliance of the particular browser determines the accuracy of your code.
  • HTML and Javascript standards have evolved over the years and so different versions and types of browsers may have different level of standards-compliance. All these different versions of browsers are in use on different systems out there.
  • Given this dependency on Browser (which in turn depends on OS which in turn depends on device), we have a large number of combinations possible, each of which may produce a variance from standard and the code will not work as intended.

Given this complexity, there are 1000s of combinations that may need to be tested to give the confidence your piece of functionality will work for everyone.

Developers (and companies) address this problem by doing one or more of the following:

  1. Identifying a few (10-15) common combinations of OS-Browser-Version and focus all testing there – This is risk-based approach and may be too risky for some companies.
  2. Create Virtual Machines for OS-Browser-Version combination (100-200) and use them as needed – Cost of managing so many virtual machine images can be prohibitive for many companies
  3. ‘Rent’ pre-created virtual machines from 3rd party to make #2 more cost effective.

BrowserStack offers live, web-based browser testing to developers, by ‘renting’ virtual machines with desired configuration. Developer uses a familiar web interface and gets an instance of virtual machine with desired OS-Browser-Version combination to test against.

The founders started BrowserStack to solve their own problems – while consulting (after 3 startups), they found it was very hard to ensure web applications have been tested on all possible configurations.

BrowserStack-Time-line

By May ’14, they had 400K registrations and 20K paying customers.

BrowserStack-CustomerGrowth

The Product

Features

BrowserStack has all the features that a developer needs to effectively test their application.

BrowserStack-Features

Screenshot Service

They also offer screenshot service (how does a page look in different browsers), primarily for web designers who want to ensure their page looks good and consistent across devices.

BrowserStack-Screenshot

BrowserStack-PN

Automation Testing

Browserstack’s Automate Product enables automated testing of your web applications over 300+ browser combinations in 2 ways:

  • Selenium Cloud Testing – You can set it up as a Selenium WebDriver and code your tests in your favorite language. You can use their dashboard or their REST APIs to access information about your test runs.
  • Javascript Testing API – You can use it to run Javascript unit and functional tests, standalone, or with testing tools like Yeti, TestSwarm, etc.

They will soon support real mobile devices for Automate. You could run your tests on real mobile devices, get 100% accurate results and avoid erroneous simulators. This is a big deal.

Differentiators

While they have a full bouquet of feature, there are 3 areas they differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Usability

BrowserStack is easier to use than some of their competitors that I tried. Even configuring the local testing (which is a tricky concept) was straightforward and I could complete it in a few minutes.

BrowserStack-Home

Technology

They pride themselves on the technology they have built to enable these features, and the continued effort they put into it. 80% of their 50+ strong team is developers. This is not visible but can be a key differentiator in such a developer-centric product.

Local Testing

They enable you to test local setup. Given the fact that most of the time you want to test before you make your application public, this is a powerful feature. This has been done well even though many of their competitors also offer it.

BS-Configureyoursite

BrowserStack-Mobile

Product Development

The entire team is 50+ employees with 80% being developers. Technology consists of but not limited to plethora of languages including Ruby and RoR, Python, C/C++, Java, platforms such as AWS and co-located servers as well as iOS and Android development.

Most of the development effort goes into making the existing features awesome and robust. Some of the areas the team continues to innovate are:

  • Infrastructure of real mobile devices
  • Using better streaming technology to make the screen more responsive
  • Improve Local testing
  • Supporting newer browsers/OS mix

Market

Potentially this is a very big market, given the large number of web developers in the world, and this number is going up. However, this also seems to be a crowded space – there are many players offering similar services that are largely undifferentiated (or have hard-to-perceive differences). Their major competitors are Saucelabs, crossbrowsertesting, Browsershots, etc. SauceLabs primarily focuses on automation testing (its founders include founder of Selenium), Crossbrowsertesting doesn’t have good interface, and Browsershots is very limited in functionality. They are much better placed than their competitors. They aim to reach 1M developers.

BrowserStackFacts & Figures

They have some marquee names in their customer list. Also, their partnership with Microsoft through modern.ie (Microsoft’s attempt to help developers test their app on older versions of IE) has been very beneficial to them in bringing customers in.

BrowserStack-Customers

Product Vision and Strategy

They are totally focused on making BrowserStack a technically and usably superior product in the market by far. Their roadmap for the next 12 months includes ability to testing on real mobile devices (sort of a ‘device farm’ available on demand), improving the product speed and doing more aggressive marketing of the product.

From a vision perspective, Ritesh would like to give a browser-on-demand feel to every developer in the world – it should be so easy to load (just like I open a Chrome browser on my machine), so easy to use, that it feels like a native/local instance of the browser that you are testing on. They intend to be the de-facto standard for web testing world-wide.

BrowserStack-Marketshare

The Road Ahead

There is no reason to believe that in future, web technologies will become so standardized that cross-browser testing will not be required. In fact the trend is in opposite direction, with the proliferation of devices, OS and Browsers, we are getting more and more fragmented. Given that future, BrowserStack is well poised to be the first choice for development teams and companies to do cross-browser testing.

Couple of things they need to watch out for:

  1. Enterprise Software Development Process is where lots of engineering dollars get spent – and that usually goes to large organizations (Microsoft, Oracle, HP, and many other process/QA/IDE companies). How BrowserStack fits into that eco-system may very well determine how big BrowserStack can become – developer driving the adoption may be the start but it is unlikely to be the stable state.
  2. Being a technology focused company and located in India has its challenges. Exposure is limited, and also it is hard to get talent in specialized areas like design and product management. They need to address this, and their focus on marketing over next 12 months (as articulated by Ritesh) will help address this.

They have a bright future ahead, good luck to them!

Q&A with Sagar Apte, Founder & CEO, CarIQ – India’s first Connected Car Platform

CarIQ, started in August 2012, launched the product this past week. Car owners and enthusiasts can now get their hands on their very own CarIQ device by per-ordering it! CarIQ is one of the few Indian startups in the domain of connected cars, with primary focus on Indian auto market. This past week ProductNation interviewed Sagar Apte, Founder and CEO of CarIQ. In this conversation over coffee, Sagar explains about the birth of CarIQ, challenges of building Indian hardware startup, his vision and much more…

How did the idea of CarIQ into being?

Sagar ApteIt was the experience of my purchase of Hyundai i20 a few years ago, which made me aware of an acute problem. When I made the purchase, I knew what car, make, and model I wanted to buy. I knew what mileage to expect, I read reviews, and before I went to the dealer, the decision was already made. There was so much information available to help me buy. But I was not ready for what happened after the purchase. I had to set manual service reminders, I was not aware whether my car was performing as expected. I was apprehensive when I left my new ride parked for hours at open parking places. I just wished, – what if my car was a smart car and managed this for me? Wouldn’t it be cool, if my car could detect problems, remind me of service alerts, or tell me its location even if I was not in the car. That lead me to first investigate mechanical add-on to get this data until I realised that cars have computers, and those computers can talk. I can get data on performance, condition, and even potential unseen problems. That was it. I knew I had to harness this data to convert into meaningful insights.

How would you describe CarIQ?

Cars today are way more intelligent than their predecessors. They are self-healing, with data processing capabilities. Cars know which component is failing, they can identify how one is driving the car, they are aware of the road conditions, the weather, and even the fuel supplied. What they lack is a window to the world, where this data can be gathered and shared for intelligent decision-making. Imagine the possibilities of cars that transmit their data, collect information, and are able to direct the car owners to act on them.

Connected Car Ecosystem
CarIQ is India’s first connected car platform. With CarIQ, owners can remotely manage, monitor, and interact with their vehicle. Your (now) smart car, can understand its condition, review your driving pattern, and notify you of critical actions that need to be taken. Something as common as the head lights being left ON when parked, to something as critical as identifying a potential engine breakdown, is now possible. Your car will notify you to take action! There are 101 things your car wants to tell you. Start listening!

CarIQ is an ecosystem play where we are not addressing just bits of the problem such as vehicle tracking, or road safety. We are building a larger play between all the service providers to the car owners such as workshops, insurance, breakdown assistance, safety, and many more. Not many players are looking at a complete stack to address the various needs of this segment.

What are the key execution challenges you have faced?

Building hardware product requires a team that can work across domains. One needs hardware design engineers, embedded programmers, software engineers, right up to folks who can manage production, purchase, and customer support. Sometimes hardware problems simply need time to solve, and a lot of grit. At times, we were at our wits end on what was happening. Let me tell you one such incident. About 14 months back, our hardware was working well with BSNL but would not work with any other provider. It would randomly (at least that’s what we thought) catch signals. We later realised our office was on the 1st floor of a high-rise building with BSNL tower right on the top. We then made some changes to handle this and the problem went along.
CarIQ Product Render

We went through multiple iterations of form and fit to finalize the current device design.

What are your plans to get product adoption?

Hardware plays have to be carefully planned. One needs to plan for shipment, recalls, awesome after-sales support, and ability to serve customers with the best service. With the language barriers, telecom players with state-specific licenses, and certain courier players better suited for certain regions, one agreement won’t fit all. This means working with different players, and managing individual relationships. And that’s exactly what we did. We spent more than 18 months not only in research and development, but also working through various business aspects. We engaged with experts in industrial design, production, and shipping to put a plan in place that will not only scale, but also provide that awesome experience we want for our customers.

Can you give a sneak peek of your product?

CarIQ device is simple plug ‘n’ play. Even a smart ten-year-old kid can connect this to a car. You do not need to open the bonnet. Just open the door, look for a connector (OBD) near the steering wheel and connect the device. Once connected, the device intelligently understands the car it is connected to, and configures itself.

CarIQ Technology

The plugged-in device collects information from the car. This collected data is securely transmitted to the CarIQ platform, which then translates that data into meaningful information. These actionable insights, in the form of alerts, reminders, and insights are then displayed on our intuitive apps (iOS/Android/Web).

CarIQ MobileApp Features

Here are some of the features that CarIQ supports:

  • Critical alerts
  • Technical problems with your car
  • Service alerts
  • Battery monitor and health
  • ‘Headlight On’ warning
  • Location information
  • Statistics sharing on Facebook and Twitter
  • Social badges for driver, car condition, etc.
  • Towing alerts
  • Crash alert
  • Over-speeding alerts
  • Rash driving identification
  • Personalized tips for driving (based on your driving pattern)
  • Fuel economy
  • Download Entire car driving data

How do you see CarIQ evolving?
CarIQ intends to become ‘the’ player that will connect various players in the eco-system at large. The coming period is going to be important and exciting for us. We will be working with car dealers, insurance companies, auto manufacturers, telecom companies, and breakdown assistance providers. We will solve problems for various ecosystem players with focus on car owners, to bring a host of more features, which brings the ‘fun’ back into driving and car ownership. In parallel we are also planning to take the CarIQ offering internationally to geographies such as South East Asia and the Middle East. This will mean working and solving problems related to scale, hiring, and distributions.

Shephertz: Powering the Mobile Backend

ShepHertz endeavour is to make App developers successful on the Cloud, irrespective of the technology or platform on which they are developing. They provide a complete cloud ecosystem for app development – Mobile, Web, Social, Gaming and TV Apps. All their products focus on making App developers’ life easy and augment their business. ShepHertz is founded by Siddhartha Chandurkar who was head of architecture team in Wipro’s Software Products Group before starting ShepHertz in 2010. ShepHertz is already in top3-4 platform providers in its space in the world, and it aims to be #1 over next 12-18 months.

Introduction

I am sure many of you have entertained this thought: this is a nice little idea that I can create an app about. Some of you take this thought a step forward, and try to find an easy way to develop (or get developed) such an app. Then you realize that there is a lot of basic but critical stuff that need to be created – managing user login and profile details, handling communication through emails and notifications, incorporating some social engagement features – before you can truly build your neat little idea. The thought of so much work dissuades you and move on, disappointed a bit, marveling at app developers tenacity a lot, and forgetting your idea for a while.

It doesn’t need to be so. Most apps need lots of these basic services to be built which will not create a differentiated product but it will sink the product if not done well. This is like hygiene factor of the product, crucial for its existence. It would be nice if someone could take over these functionalities and let the app developers focus on real differentiators needed to win the market – neat ideas and awesome user experience.

Enter ShepHertz. If you are a wannabe developer described above, or an individual developer toiling in any part of the world, ShepHertz offers you a suite of back-end services in cloud that allow you to dramatically cut the time you spend building your app. Not only that, since they have a robust infrastructure where these services are hosted, you don’t have to worry about building these services at scale, you just focus on building the experience you want to build.

They have really understood the pain of development; on last count, they had SDK for over 18 platforms and languages, and over 2 dozen services for some of these platforms.

Even though we are talking about individual developer, large app and game development companies and studios are their biggest customers and leverage their platform for faster time-to-market and robust backend services.

Development of app is one part of the story however. For a successful game developer (or a company), development, monetization and distribution are key requirements. Shephertz envisions itself to be a technology agnostic ecosystem provider and offer a wide spectrum of products and tools for App developers.

Sidhhartha says, “ShepHertz endeavour is to make App developers successful on the Cloud, irrespective of the technology or platform on which they are developing. All our products focus on making App developer’s life easy and augment their business.”

The Shephertz Service

ShepHertz provides Complete Cloud Ecosystem for Apps – Mobile, Web, Social, Gaming and TV Apps. To achieve this, they have multiple product lines, catering to different types of developers – right from independent developers, app studios to enterprises.

They offer compelling service to developers:

  • Faster time-to-market: Back-end services take time and careful attention to develop. By managing entire back-end, Shephertz dramatically cuts down the development time and cost very significantly for the developers.
  • Allow infinite scaling: Since they manage all the infrastructure and scale challenges for the developers, the developer doesn’t need to worry about implications of overnight success (many apps lose shine because they can’t handle success). They can continue doing what they do best – create beautiful and useful apps.
  • Pay as you grow plans: Independent developers can start with free plans, paid plans start very low to allow everyone to use it and as they grow, they can buy richer functionalities. This allows them to address all levels of developers.
  • In-app analytics: Getting insight into app usage and user behavior is key to monetization and viral distribution. Shephertz provides easy way for the app developers to access the usage data through multiple visualization means and get better understanding and insights.

 

Offerings

They have many product lines, 2 of the most important ones that we discuss here are their Cloud API (App42 API) Mobile Backend-as-a-service (MBaaS) , App42 PaaS – Platform as a Service and Game development platform (AppWarp). Their AppClay and AppHawk are other platforms that developers can leverage.

Cloud APIs

A Rich set of APIs for multiple platforms and multiple modules in each platform significantly reduces the complexity of developing an app. For an app developer, it is as simple as registering and browsing through the SDK and finding the services that he and leverage, and get coding!

Some of the functionalities for which the APIs exist are:

  • User
  • Push Notification
  • Recommendation
  • In-app analytics
  • Review/rating
  • Many more..

shephertz

Multiplayer Gaming Network Engine

For game developers, this product takes the complexity of managing the core multi-player interactions away and helps the developers focus on creating engaging games. Multiplayer gaming engine, protocol for message exchange, room/lobby logic, etc. require lots of efforts to build and are a must for any game. Some of the features of this product are:

  • Connection Resiliency
  • Room Properties
  • Match-making
  • Many more..

shephertz2

 

Differentiators

Some things stand out as differentiators:

  • Eco-system approach: They are an eco-system provider, unlike other other competitors who offer one piece of the puzzle and the developer has to work with multiple vendors to get a complete solution
  • Technology and Access channel agnostic – They have support almost all popular platforms and technologies through their native SDKs
  • Comprehensiveness: They have a very large number of APIs and services, much more than their competition. This allows them to attract different types of developers because they can cater to all.
  • Large Developer Traffic: They have one of the highest Alexa ranking in the industry, and it has been steadily getting better (Global: 32,214, India: 1656).

 

Development Process

Working with multiple product lines for a startup can be very challenging. Their teams are aligned based on Products. Each product is owned by one of the Product Owners. The Product owner is responsible for all the activities with respect to the product – Technology, Support, Team management, Blogs etc. Common functions like graphics, digital marketing team, etc. are shared by the Product Owners coordinated by the Marketing head.

Development team works using Agile development process which allow them to come up with robust features in a very short time. Instead of documents, they discuss things on whiteboard and take pictures and save the images for record. They have regular vision definition and alignment meetings to discuss strategic issues so that the adhoc meetings have direction and purpose.

It is very tempting for a startup to listen too much to a single early client and end up building products that are too specific and don’t address the market. It is important to keep the balance, and Shephertz has done it well. Siddhartha says, “The germination of any product happens with the combination of two things :- The founders vision on a perceived need which does not exist in the market i.e. the customer does not even know that he has a need and secondly from market research, customer feedback and competition. We have come up with the product line based on what we thought does not exist and later fined tuned it with customer feedback.”

Market

Size

Number of apps are growing steadily and rapidly over last 4-5 years. For example, see the trend on iTunes App Store

shephertz3

Data Source: 148apps.biz

Marketing

Shephertz is in a good position to tap into this growth. Now that their product lines are fairly complete, their focus is 2-fold:

  • Handling growth as developers come on the platform
  • Manage local offices in different countries to tap into local developer eco-system

 

They are already growing at tremendous speed, and their target is to grow 20X over next 12 months.

Most of their marketing is content marketing – they spend lots of effort in writing in detail about their SDKs, its usage, sample code and examples – essentially lots of supporting content to help developers use their platform effectively and quickly. This has helped them attract a large developer crowd, and build their brand. They also Blog in multiple languages in order to reach and support local developers. There are thousands of apps live that use their libraries and the number is steadily going up.

They also need to deal with the issues of being a hard-core tech company that is based in India and not in US:

  • Branding and Credibility – Made in India brand is still not catchy enough world-wide and so they need to struggle extra-hard to build a credibility of the brand world-wide. This problem is largely solved now with many big customers vouching for them.
  • Lack of eco-system proximity – Developer eco-system is much larger in US than in India, and most of the action is there. It also becomes hard to attract investment and attention.

Competition

Hot segments bring in hot competition. Since they have multiple product lines, they have different competitors for different lines. Parse (acquired by Facebook), Kinvey, Photon and Heroku are some of their competitors or different lines. With Rackspace, Salesforce.com, Amazon, and Google all making a play for this space, competition is really hot and getting hotter in this space. However, given the fact that their product is fairly complete at this point, they are ahead of most of their competitors.

The Road Ahead

There are 3.2 million developers out there and about 2 million apps currently and steadily going up. Given the way web is going mobile, this is a market that is on a steep upward trend. By being the back-end provider for the app and games in a platform and technology agnostic manner, Shephertz can be a game-changer for the industry. With the comprehensive offering, end-to-end solutions approach, and push to be present in all geographies where developers are present, Shephertz is on a good growth path. It is already in top 3-4 game backend provider category.

They do need to simplify their marketing message on their website and otherwise to be less techie and more business-focused so that the value is readily apparent to even a casual visitor to their site – currently it is too technology focused.

This is one of the few technology and platform companies from India with a potential to be a billion dollar one and we wish them good luck!

“We want to be the analytics app store to the world” – Mahesh Ramakrishnan, Founder, Nanobi Analytics

Mahesh Ramakrishnan, Founder and CEO of Nanobi Analytics shares his fascinating journey of how he, along-with five highly accomplished professionals are out to disrupt the analytics space by providing an analytics platform and applications for every business sector. Read on…

What was the key driver to the inception of Nanobi Analytics? 

Nanobi came to existence after a rigorous and intense thought process that spanned over eight months. A couple of factors sparked the thought. First, our background and corporate experience has been in delivering analytics to large companies for over two decades. Second, I spent 18 months working for the UID project that exposed me to the open source environment of working. I was fascinated by these concepts of working on technology, wherein simplicity, agility, speed and the mode of working with constant change formed the core tenets of operation.

As I reflected upon these experiences, it occurred to me that we could combine the good things from both the above and create a platform for analytics apps, which could benefit a large set of untapped customers.  We envisioned a platform that would host very small analytics (business intelligence) applications (hence the word ‘nano BI’) and is made available to customers on a pay per use basis. This led to the formal incorporation of Nanobi Analytics.

What type of customers do you see benefiting from your platform, and how is your offering different from traditional business intelligence solutions?

Traditional business analytics solutions in large enterprises are built for usage by highly skilled workforce and require regular maintenance. Secondly, these solutions are by design, not suited for agility. It takes months for a large bank or a manufacturing behemoth to drive a small change in its business review process.

Contrast this with the medium and small enterprises. These enterprises around the world do not have access to analytics solutions simply because the costs are prohibitive, and usually it is difficult for these enterprises to employ highly skilled personnel. However, this does not mean that small or medium enterprises do not need analytics. In fact, given the constant churn, volatility and agile nature of work, it becomes all the more important for these type of industries to take decisions based on data, to ensure that they make course corrections as business circumstances change. It is this segment of customers, who thus far have not been able to leverage the power of business analytics that we target.

We have developed this analytics platform, keeping the constraints of the small and medium enterprises in mind. From a market segmentation perspective, this is a completely untapped and complementary set of customers that we are targeting. The system is designed in such a way that it is usable by any business person, who does not need to have any IT training. In fact, we do not do any end user training for our customers who sign up for usage. Also, we have made these solutions affordable to their price points.

Your concept of providing an analytics appstore should be pretty appealing to other product companies as well. How can other companies make use of this platform?

We have built analytics applications that can easily be consumed or integrated with existing products or applications. Besides, the platform on which these are hosted is open. This allows any other product developer to simply use our platform or use any of the analytics capability from us. The product developer now can only focus on providing the core business function, and can aggregate the analytics capability to their products from us. So, this largely reduces work of other product vendors and enables them to go to market faster, or reduce the time of development. We have a variety of adapters to connect data from anywhere, so our platform and our APIs will be a great advantage to these folks. We even provide training to interested product vendors on getting the best out of our apps and our platform. 

How are you influencing the channels ecosystem to reach out to your target customers? What has been your experience working with them thus far? 

We have a very effective channel partnering mechanism that helps us connect with our customers. We work with different kind of channel partners – those who already are selling to small and medium enterprises, those who specialize in selling aggregated solutions to this target customer base, and some who help us purely by generating leads to potential customers. We have early successes in each of the above approach, validating our strategy on this front.

We also partner with other vendors for technology, digital marketing and allied activities. Given our previous experience, we have forged win-win relationships, which are bearing fruits as we gain momentum in the marketplace.

On a different note, I am curious to understand how the ‘founding five’ came together. You have a strong Board of directors as well as advisors. How much of all these is relevant in the initial years of your startup? 

Well, although all members of the founding team have worked in the same organization before, each brings in complementary skills that are essential to run a company. The common thread across all of us is that each one of us has worked in product development companies and has a very good understanding of the domain of analytics. All of us had to leave lucrative and successful corporate careers and indulge in building something new from the scratch. When the goal you are setting is very big, you need equally competent people to work with to bring it to reality. I have been extremely lucky to get a competent team such as this to start up.

As regards to the Board of directors, I feel that even for startups, you need at least one person outside the founding team who takes an independent view of all actions you take as a company. In our case, since the goals we are chasing are tall and ambitious, an experienced Board will help us bring back the focus on key activities to pursue, in case we digress.

We also have well respected individuals as our advisors. They help us in unique ways. We rely on them for advice on technology, managing the ecosystem and governance needs. Having their inputs largely benefits us – since it sets the fundamentals of all aspects of the company in place right from inception. Even though we are a startup, it is our belief that setting clear practices for each function will help us grow and scale faster.

Thank you for these insights. In closing, could you please share three tips that would be useful for fellow product entrepreneurs?

I would say that one should hit the market as soon as one can. Your product is never really ready with all the features at any point in time. So, analogous to the MVP theme, if you believe that you have some capabilities that a customer would be delighted to use; go ahead and test it out. Keep in mind that it is always the customers who make your products good. Lastly, during the early startup days, it is paramount that you act immediately on customer feedback. Initial customer feedback should be the prime source of your next steps. This will ensure that you sustain yourself in the marketplace while delighting your customer with your attention.

“Social Commerce – Enabling trust and higher conversions in online transactions” – #PNHangout with Vipin Agarwal

In this #PNHangout, we spoke to Vipin Agarwal, who is the co-founder of enMarkit and an ex-VC turned entrepreneur, about his journey in conceptualizing the product, his team, the tools and the product management philosophy and what a typical day in his life looks like!

Give us a brief introduction to what enMarkit does.

Enmarkit comes from a combination of the words: ENabling and MARKETing. We offer product based solutions to merchants who want to start selling online without these merchants spending too much time or money on creating their websites or struggling to deal with outsourcing agencies. We offer simple plug and play solutions to the entire eco-system of companies, SME’s and entrepreneurs using a SaaS model.

We have two live products –

  1. enMarkit FAST (Fast Anywhere Secure Transactions) Payments Solution – helps anyone start receiving payments online instantly. This solution embeds seamlessly on any given website, blog, Facebook page or any social media page.
  2. enMarkit ONE Store – The socially integrated solution that enables anyone to create an online store within a minute. This web-store has payment gateway already integrated at no upfront costs, giving the merchant a ready-to-use storefront that he can start sharing with his clients instantly.

Besides these, we have a couple of products under development that would, we believe, go a long way to revolutionize the online commerce ecosystem even further.

How did you meet your co-founder and how did you bring this concept to life?

As a venture capitalist I was exploring bottlenecks that entrepreneurs and companies faced in the online transaction space and in the midst of trying to find technology enabled solutions that could solve this I had met Ekta, who was the Amazon head for market places in India. It took about 6 months of back and forth conversation with Ekta before we started. Finally we chose to tackle the online transactions space head on.

We took inspiration from the user behaviour when a person shops for something from a mom-and-pop store. We realised that the entire product discovery, transaction conclusion and post-transaction behaviour of a person in real world is not reflected in the current transaction models of websites today. Buying is inherently a social phenomenon – and yet Social Commerce has distinctly been untouched in all e-commerce business models today.

It is very common to find founders juggling multiple roles in the early stages. What role do you play when it comes to product management?

In my current role I interact with multiple teams and different kinds of customers to bring our product to life. Although I do not have a background in coding, I do have a very strong opinion of the product features that come over from the use case scenarios laid out by interacting with our customers.

With feature additions we constantly communicate with the registered merchants on our platform to get an idea of what their requirements maybe. We usually break our customer demands into two buckets, soft and hard. Soft requirements are minor changes which can be made in our user interface, which improve the user experience and aesthetics of the product. With hard requirements, that are more complex and require a larger change in the product itself, we consult with the front end and back end teams to ensure the changes roll out smoothly, these could be issues such as improving load times, etc.

It’s interesting to note that some of the biggest critics we have for the product are the internal team-members! Pitching an idea and getting a go ahead is one of the biggest hurdles our product has to cross even before we even start the test marketing campaigns. The benchmarks set by our team are very high and that reflects in our products as well.

When did you know enMarkit was a market fit?

I had personally made over 2000 cold calls, talking to merchants and demonstrating a prototype to target customers before going whole hog on product development. Even though our product was in its early stages, we received tons of feedback from our users. Out of the 800-900 people I personally met, almost 70 people had actually committed to using our product after it would be ready. Once we knew that we had their support, this encouraged me to continue building the product further. After adding the social commerce features in our future iterations the market for us grew larger.

From 2012 to 2013, your product must have scaled extensively. How did you ensure the product and teams also scaled the right way?

EnMarkit started off as a social commerce platform which was built with direct contact to our customers. How we ensured continuity and evolution of the product and teams was by not throwing all the features on day 1. We request for a feature, build it, get some feedback and if it does not work as planned, we junk it. It was this type of ladder approach that has allowed us to build our portfolio of products.

What has been your most challenging problem and how did you tackle it?

Our product development philosophy has always been to build, evaluate and either junk or deploy the feature depending on the feedback we receive. Some-times junking the product affects the team morale, as the team may have spent time and energy building it. The solution I’ve found to this is to make the team understand that even though the work was great, the market wasn’t ready a feature like this.

What are some of the tools you use to maintain communication between the tech, design, business and sales teams?

There are various teams that work on various parts of the same problem, so it’s usually my role to maintain these interactions between the teams and keep the teams in synergy. Team management internally is always a challenge.

I keep a Gantt chart with me to keep a track of the timelines of the proposed and actual build times and ensure that is matched by the team. I also ensure that if a task is a road-block for another task, that timelines are maintained so that there isn’t a delay.

Some of the tools I do this with are Trello(for project management) and although very basic we use Google Docs and Excel sheets track progress.

Could you briefly tell us what a typical day for you is like at enMarkit?

Before, I get to work, I usually allocate a little bit of time every morning to catching up on the latest news even before I leave for the office.

After reaching work, I allocate some time every morning for catch up meetings with my team. We evaluate the work we will do today and how the backlog looks like.

Around lunch time, we usually take a little a little longer break of 45 mins. We usually discuss all the industry news between the team.

Post lunch, I usually allocate a couple of hours to talk to our customers.

Towards the end of the day is when I sit with the many teams again, often getting into a detailed conversation of the progress made today.

How do you divide your time between: executing your current tasks b) planning for the future c) emergency

Since it’s just the first year of our product, we do spend a considerable amount of time in firefighting. I usually plan for the future with my co-founder Ekta to evaluate the roadmap of our product and what should be communicated with the rest of the team.

Where Ekta and I help each other out, is that I work as a product manager/salesman with a lot of ideas and demands for feature requests and Ekta is usually adept at giving me an idea of the challenges that we may face in implementing these features, and also the estimated time it may take for the team to do it. By the end of this meeting, we usually end up with a list of tasks in terms of priority that can be handed over to the teams.

Any advice for other product managers?

I think product management philosophies vary from company to company, and I would suggest each product manager to use tools, styles that suit his/her personality. There’s no one mantra that fits all. The longer plan is balancing the requirements of the customers and the capabilities of the team.

Editors Note:

Every member of the product team is important. To succeed, a company must design, build, test and market the product effectively. That said, there is one role that is absolutely crucial to producing a good product, yet it is often the most misunderstood and underutilized of all the roles. This is the role of the product manager. #PNHangout is an ongoing series where we talk to Product Managers from various companies to understand what drives them, the tools they use, the products they work on, how they go about their day and the role they play in defining the products success.

If you have any feedback or questions that you would like answered in this series feel free to tweet to me: @akashj

Explara – The new journey begins…

There are some companies which start their business with a bang but can’t sustain their growth. Then there are other firms who seize market opportunities and add value to it. These companies succeed in the Indian Market and then get ready to go Global, including taking on the hard to penetrate Asian Markets. The following Interview is of a company that has reached a turning point and  is ready to leave their footprint on the world markets. With new products in the making and a new brand name,they are ready to take Asia by storm. In discussion with Product Nation, Santosh Panda Founder Explara (formerly Ayojak) shares his strategy on the company’s plans ahead.

What was the vision with which you launched the company and how has the journey been so far? 

We saw a need in the small to medium event organizers to streamline their businesses. These organizers did not have any technology input/help and we thought we could provide the same through this platform. We launched Ayojak in September 2008 and after adding ticketing and other features to the product we upgraded it the following year. In 2008 we started with listing of events with 4-5 customers. At that time event organizers were using handouts etc. to reach out to their customers and could not anticipate how many customers would come for the event. In 2009 our turnover was 1.5 Lakhs with 5 customers that went up to Rs.30 Lakhs in 2010, clearly establishing that there was a need in the market for the product which we were offering. In 2011 we clocked revenues of Rs. 1.69 crores and since then have been growing at over 75% year on year and today we handle over 300 events per month.

What was the competition like in 2009?

There was hardly any competition, the infrastructure was getting built, we had to call customers and tell them how to use it. There were people who sold only a particular event and nobody was looking at the platform as a one stop solution for all event needs.

Ayojak has gone in for a rebranding exercise; do tell us about the same. What prompted you to choose a different name? 

Initially we were looking at solving a B to B problem, as in how to run an event, get details of people who are coming, collection of entry fee etc. We chose to address these problems for the event organizers. Therefore the focus was event organizers. But after some time the name which we had  chosen – Ayojak, was perceived to be more of a name for an event management company and thus called for rebranding. Also since we were operating only in India, even then people had problems pronouncing the name clearly.

We thought, that if we need to target B to C customers and look international we should have a name which will be easy to pronounce and at the same time clearly be able to define to the customers what we were all about.

We want to be known as the go to site for any event organizer. Hence an opportunity to all event organizers and customer to Explore hence – Explara

Which other markets other than India are you looking at operating in and why?

We are looking at Singapore, South Africa, Philippines, to begin with, since we have already operated in a tough market like India, the learning has been immense and we feel that we will be able to apply the same in other developing markets, which are equally challenging. Our foray into international arena would be by end July.

What are the new features which you are planning to launch to supplement your existing product lines?

In our view the next two features could very well be the game changers. Any event organizer today still has two problems, Firstly, to identify who all have come for an event and who are yet to come. Through a new product  – Entry Management, we will enable organizers through a smart phone to read the bar code/QR Code/NFC for every visitor attending the event, thus will at all times know the details of people who are in the event, yet to come or are outside the event.

Secondly, In India 30-40% of the attendees still come directly at the event. To help the organizers with this problem, we will give them an app based Box Office application which they can use to scan credit cards, debit cards etc, at the venue itself, thus ensuring that end moment gate collections are just as easy.

What advice would you give to product startups based on your early experience in the last few years?

Communicate clearly too all employees that you are there to stay, thereby keep reiterating to your employees the same message amplifying the fact that you are there for the long term.