Aurus Network CourseHub: Delivering on the promise of classroom-in-the-cloud

Aurus Network was founded in 2010 with the vision to make quality education accessible to masses at affordable prices. It is revolutionizing the way distance/online education is delivered. Aurus offers CourseHub, its flagship product, which is a cloud-based solution for educational institutions (higher education, test prep and training,schools, etc.) to capture, store and deliver (live or on-demand) lectures online. The company has been funded by Indian Angel Networks and is the recipient of Microsoft Bizspark 2012 Startup Challenge in cloud category. This is a review of their flagship product CourseHub and the company.

Introduction

When I was in college and bunked classes (which was fairly often; it was hard to get up for 8 am classes), what usually got me through the course were the notes photocopied from one of the studious guys of the class. It was not the best solution, but was good enough. Then, in my 3rd year, my college introduced a special studio classroom where one of the course professors used to hold his lectures – a sound-proof, sanitized room where the professor used to write on a paper with marker which would show up on screen for us, and for recording. The recording was supposed to be available as a bunch of video cassettes (yes, I am that old!) in the library. It was painful to attend these classes because they felt so unlike a classroom, and of course, it was too complex to watch these recordings so I never watched any, and photocopied notes continued to save the day.

I was 15 years too early! If it was 2013, I probably would be sitting in a regular classroom whose lectures were being recorded, and recordings were available right after the class, on my course portal online, in an easy-to-consume format on the various devices I own. Recorded (and indexed) lectures would allow me to have lectures-on-demand, which is so cool.

This is what Aurus Network offers through its flagship product CourseHub. It is a cloud-based solution for educational institutions (higher education, test prep and training schools, etc.) to capture, store and deliver (live or on-demand) lectures online. CourseHub is also offered to corporates to manage remote training sessions and schools for capturing their classes.

Aurus Network was founded in 2010 by Piyush Agrawal and Sujeet Kumar, and is based in Bangalore. 

The Product

Usage Scenarios

There are 3 primary usage scenarios for CourseHub:

  1. Lecture Capture: A lecturer captures his/her lecture for offline viewing by students or for creating blended learning content (for MOOC or other delivery mechanisms).
  2. Self-paced learning: A lecturer’s class is recorded to be viewed later by students to allow them to review the content at their own pace. Lecturer can edit the video and add pop quizzes and assessments online. This is usually used by universities.
  3. Extend the classroom: In this scenario, a lecturer’s class is streamed in real-time to remotely located classrooms or students. This allows the lecturer to have a very large classroom and have it closer to where the students are, without spending time in physical travel or money to build a single-location large classroom. This is usually used by training and test preparation centers.

For all of these scenarios to work, the capture device needs to be set up in a studio or classroom, which is a 1-time activity.  This is typically done with a server class machine connected to internet via high speed broadband connection (higher the speed, better is the quality of video streamed and stored) and a capture device (HD camera and microphone) connected to the machine.

Development

The product was conceptualized in Nov 2010 in response to the problem posed by their first client. Their V1 was released in Nov 2010 and V2 in Feb 2011 with the first deployment and roll-out to 10 centers across India. Their tech team comprises of about 10 people, who are working on various technologies like video compression, video streaming, computer vision, large scale load balancing and engaging front end technologies.

Most of the innovation in the product has been achieved by applying technically simple but important insights about customer behavior and preferences. For e.g., one of the USPs of the solution is that they are able to deliver almost HD quality videos at as low as 200 Kbps, while other conventional solutions (web conferencing, video conferencing) require atleast 1 Mbps or more for the same. This has been achieved by prioritizing the encoding parameters which matter more for the viewer while watching educational videos (like clear audio, sharp writing etc.) rather than doing a one-size fits all kind of video encoding.

Features

Some of the product features are as follows:

  1. Record video with any HD camera and microphone
  2. Enable automatic focusing on teacher with Intelligent software based tracker
  3. Teachers can teach in their natural style
  4. Schedule captures in advance
  5. Automatic archiving to create media library in the cloud
  6. Integration with client’s website
  7. Integration with Learning Management Systems like Moodle, Blackboard, etc.

Differentiators

There are a few standout features in the product which are well worth the mention:

  1. They can deliver HD video quality at 200Kbps, which makes this available to all students who have a broadband connection. Other solutions use much higher bandwidth (around 1 Mbps in some cases). The reason they are able to do this is because they can optimize their compression algorithms using their knowledge of what is important for students (clear audio and writing is much more important than clearly visible instructor for example).
  2. No human intervention is required (after initial setup) to capture, store and deliver lectures, they have fully automated the solution (including tracking the presenter, managing connectivity disruption, etc.).
  3. It is a cloud-based solution, so clients can try out their solution without any hardware setup.
  4. Aurus provides a home-grown Learning and Content Management System which allows their clients to manage users and lecturers, edit video lectures, and add quizzes and assessments to the videos. This means that the clients get a complete product.

Market Adoption

Typical market for CourseHub in India are test preparation and training institutes like Career Point, Career Launcher, etc. and universities. CourseHub is sold on a monthly/yearly subscription model, for example Rs. 20K a month can get you 500 hours of lecture time (1 lecture + 99 students in a 1-hour lecture will constitute 100 hours of lecture time) and 50GB of storage (500 hours will fit into 50GB). However, for someone in the market for such a solution, there are many options to choose from:

  1. VSAT based classrooms (Hughes is the biggest player) – These are expensive to set up and require dedicated hardware, but offer highly reliable infrastructure
  2. Internet-based classrooms (like Aurus) – Some of these require expensive studio setup, while others, like Aurus, can work with regular hardware.
  3. Ad-hoc systems: You can use youtube (or other video streaming sites), Google Hangouts and some local capture method to enable a large part of functionality of capture, store and distribute, and save some money. Operational hassle will be larger.
  4. No system: this is still not a critical need for educational institutes and a large number of these institutes just don’t have any solution in place.

For all these solutions, technology is an important piece, but so is the overall package (that includes setup, operations, essentially IT-free solution), since the clients are not likely to be tech-savvy enough to manage these technological solutions.

Currently, Aurus is the technology solution provider of type #2 – allowing their clients to create internet-based classrooms. They have about 30 clients out of which around 20 are actively using their system. They have a healthy pipeline of future deals, sales cycle tends to be long and seasonal (because of academic session dependency).

The Roadmap

With the goals of capturing more clients in India in different segments (Corporate, Training and Test Prep, Schools) and also expanding outside India, Aurus has an ambition pipeline of features and innovations.

Product Roadmap

Over next 12 months or so, Aurus intends to deliver the following to its clients:

  1. Launching a completely Do-It-Yourself version of CourseHub, which will allow institutes based out of India to use the product
  2. Launching more features to allow professors/trainers to effectively analyze student performance and take pro-active actions
  3. For professors, adding multiple ways to lecture capture in their classrooms – using a dedicated capture appliance, an android app or manual uploading

Technology Roadmap

Aurus hopes to deliver following technology enhancements in this period:

  1. Enhanced Capture – Enhance and decouple capture process from software so that the solution can work with any kind of capture device and hence can allow them to go global. This includes allowing the use of high-end camera (which ship with Android OS) and remotely controlling it from server through an Android app.
  2. Deep LMS integration – Current LMS integrations are very shallow since it uses LTI. Deeper LMS integrations will enable more complex use cases to be supported.
  3. API solution – Allowing API level access to the video catalog to enable integration into client’s portal will allow CourseHub to be more tightly integrate with client portals.

Competitive Landscape

Companies offering such a solution (capture, store and distribute – live or on-demand) are very hot in US. Echo360 is a Steve Case backed venture that focuses purely on universities and offers socializing the learning (learn in groups and collaborate using social tools) and flipping the classroom (use classroom to discuss and clarify doubts rather than lecturing). Sonic Foundry is a public company, and Tegrity is a McGraw Hill company, both offering solution similar to CourseHub.

One of the reasons for this space being hot is the fact that flipping the classroom is becoming the craze, and with MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) also being the next big thing; capture, store and distribute of video lectures suddenly seems like a key technology piece to allow everyone to offer a MOOC.

In India, it is still early days for flipping classrooms and offering MOOCs. CourseHub is primarily being used to extend the classroom, and make star lecturers available in remote classrooms, in addition to using it for self-paced learning by making recorded lectures available for later viewing. However, as Indian universities catch up to these concepts, Aurus seems to be well-positioned to be a leader in the space if it plays its cards well.

The Road Ahead

If I have to go to college again, I will probably bunk again (while managing the attendances somehow since they are mandatory now). When I do so, I will probably still go for photocopied notes because they are so brief and quick to go through. I would really love to look up appropriate pieces of short video clips of the lecture when I get stuck in the notes so having notes and videos cross-indexed will be so useful; also useful will be the ability to find other lectures on the same micro-topic and try to really understand it from different perspectives. Essentially, videos become any other type of content which can be searched, used and mashed up together to create learning assets that are reusable and easily consumable.

Aurus is a pure technology provider in education space. It becomes apparent when you go through their solutions, their brochure, or the cool features they showcase on their website – they are technology-heavy. However, education sector doesn’t yield itself well to pure technology players, primarily because technology is hard to use, and very few institutes have technical/IT teams on their rolls. So what they need is complete solution (including service, personnel, etc.) so that it becomes plug-and-play for them. Aurus needs to be on top of its clients’ complete technology needs and should be willing to offer various value-added services.

Blended learning holds lots of potential, be it universities, training institutes, corporates or schools. Aurus seems to be well poised to help them deliver on this promise through technology.

Photolity – The finest, most efficient, and an intelligent aggregator of photos.

It promises to aggregate photos from any source, and do some great things with them. Photolity was created recently against the backdrop of a similar Facebook app which was launched last year. The team brought the whole idea to life within 8 months. According to Gautam, extensive product experience helped the idea get off the ground in such a short timeframe. 

What is Photolity’s proposition?
In simple words Photolity aims to bring magic to photos. We are surrounded by billions of photos and everybody is searching for photos through Google but once search is complete there is not a frictionless next step. Downloading and sorting photos is a painful process. Photoliy is a small widget that allows you to aggregate the photos and do many things with them. It is an efficient tool for photos!

What are your key offerings?
Photolity can be used in many ways, for instance it allows teachers to prepare nice looking presentations, ad agencies to prepare contact sheets, users to upload pics on facebook and order for printing. It also supports the law enforcement agencies by helping them identify key pieces of information in the CCTV footage and in creating mugshots. It could be applied across other sectors including professional modelling and photography in general. 


How are you funded?
According to Gautam, Photolity is completely bootstrapped and has not raised any capital from external sources so far. 

What is your pricing model?
As of now the pricing model is not defined but the potential options include charging users for app download, forming partnerships with camera OEMs and printer companies.

What is your customer base saying?
The app is due to be launched in Beta over the next couple of weeks. So far there has been tremendous interest from the community. For example, Nasscom wants to do a pilot with Mumbai police to create a database of criminals whereas Intel and Window 8 want to display the app in their stores. The team is planning to launch a social media campaign to take this to market. 

What does the future hold?
Gaurav suggested that Photolity aims to become a market leader in this space through continuously refining the app features and thereby enhancing user experience. As the product gets ready for launch, the team needs to develop a clear product-market strategy and customer acquisition plans over the next few weeks. 

Getting business to use technology and improve productivity – Knowlarity Communications

Inspired by the vision to help small businesses make better use of technology, Ambarish Gupta gets talking about how his Cloud Telephony product Knowlarity, fills a crucial gap in business struggling to use costly and cumbersome technology to improve productivity. In a world gone all mobile and integrated, Knowlarity’s hardware free, web based solution, frees you from the traditional PBX machine and lets you communicate seamlessly on the move, even integrating with your CRM and ERP systems, thereby fetching you prospects, business and the extremely crucial customer analysis information.

Getting business to use technology and improve productivity

Q.  What was your vision that inspired you to launch Knowlarity?
I wanted the regular mom-and-pop businesses in India to become better by using technology. These mid-size business form the bed-rock of Indian economy contributing to more than 10% of Indian GDP and employing millions of people.  I have a degree from one of the IITs. If these business could use technology and improve their productivity by even 10%, our vision will be fulfilled.

The problem with technology adoption however is that the Indian business owner is not very tech savvy and does not always feel very comfortable about using complex software. We solved the problem by designing all our products to be accessible over telephone. With close to universal telephony penetration in the business sector, this is a very powerful solution. Our virtual office product – SuperReceptionist makes office phone super intelligent and powerful. Another product – SuperFax allows business owners to receive faxes as PDF documents on email and not worry about owning a fax machine. 

Q. What is Knowlarity’s product positioning?
We are a Cloud Telephony company targeting SME in emerging markets. We want to be super hassle free. We want to be simple and intuitive. We want to remain inexpensive so that a large number of SME can use our products. Above all, we want to use technology to help Indian SME improve their revenues and decrease cost, thus improving their bottom line.

Q.  What problem did Knowlarity help solve for its customers? What were the existing products lacking?
At the most basic level, our products replace office PBX system. You remember the big black machine that a receptionist in any office has? Somehow hooked to a telephone? That is called a PBX machine. When someone calls to the office, the phone rings, she can pick and route the call to employees inside. If you open an office, you need one such machine.

This is a very cumbersome hardware to handle. It is very difficult to configure. It is expensive with cost approaching to 1 lac for a regular offices. It also ties you down – the calls are forwarded to your desk phone when employees are increasingly becoming mobile. It also has no integration with your enterprise softwares. Your office phone is where every single one of your new prospect and customer calls. All the logs should go to your CRM or ERP system for very important customer analysis. It can never get done with such systems. SuperReceptionist  solves the problem. It does not require any hardware. You come to our website and get a phone number that you can configure on the web. You can upload an mp3 greeting saying “Welcome to your company. Press 1 for sales and press 2 for support” for example. You can configure it over web to forward the calls to your mobile number when people press 1. 

You can avoid fixed expense by using it as per-use system – paying every year of use. It also integrates with your CRM system – Salesforce.com or freshdesk or sugarCRM come pre-integrated. It makes telephony super intelligent and useful for your business. 

Q. How different is it from its competing products, if any?
We get competition from companies that have built their products over Asterisk – an open source system. These are on-premise systems that have problem with stability, scalability and are really expensive when you calculate the total cost over a period of a year. We differentiate by providing advanced telephony applications that are hassle free, pre-integrated and are really inexpensive to use. 

Q.What was your biggest struggle with bringing Knowlarity to market?
Indian business are difficult to sell to and the technology adoption is pretty slow. We struggled in maturing our processes to sell at scale. It took time but we are able to do so now.  

Q. What was experience of the core team that worked on the product?
The core team is composed of people with deep experience in technology in general and in products in particular. Bipul – the CTO – worked in technology industry in Silicon Valley designing embedded device products. He is IITK CS 1999 batch. I started out my career with a product company in Valley named Electronics for Imaging after graduating from IITK in CS in 2000. Pallav – the other founder – also an IITK EE 2000 batch worked from NVDIA chip manufacturing company in valley.

We wanted to build a product that Indian businesses can derive real value from and use with ease. We developed the technology in-house to make sure that the product remain really easy to use. I am happy to say that we seem to have had reasonable success in achieving that 

Q.  How does the product help start-ups/companies?
Cloud technologies are god-sent for status companies. Our products scale as the companies scale, do not require up-front investment and are usable from a simple browser. SuperReceptionist gives startups an office number that they can print on their business cards. It is really important for startups to keep track of customer inquiry and publishing mobile number as your customer care number can really hurt  there credibility. With an office number, the startups can look like a big and established company. Also, with a log of every call going into their CRM system, startup companies can kick-start their customer engagement processes right from the beginning.

We love startups and provide them free services as well. For example, you can have a free conferencing service from us by giving a missed call to +91 9650 235522. You will receive your conference ID and PIN in SMS. We want startup companies to get started with least possible hassle. 

Q. What are your learnings in doing business in the SMB market in India and would advice would you want to share with startups?
SMB markets are not easy markets to build large revenues quickly but at the same time these are really un-penetrated markets. There are huge opportunities available. I think startups should build SaaS products for such un-penetrated markets. They should take it to the customers quickly – even when it is not fully cooked. When there is real pain and real need even a half-baked product will be taken with open arms by the customers.

Q. What are the future plans for Knowlarity?
Knowlarity wants the enterprises in the emerging markets to be able to use the advantages of cloud telephony to the fullest. We are looking to consolidate our position in India and grow in the international markets. 

A Platform Thinking Approach to Problem Solving

Business is about solving customer problems. It’s been claimed that business is primarily about beating the competition or about maximizing shareholder returns but if the successes (and failures) of the past decade are anything to go by, the primary goal of business is solving customer problems. If you think about the approach that businesses take to solving these problems, three broad patterns emerge.

THE ‘STUFF’ APPROACH

The approach of the industrial age to solving customer problems has been to create more stuff. If there’s a customer problem out there, you set up factories and build some stuff. And once consumers have got their needs satisfied but you’ve still got all this excess production capacity, you put in some marketing and convince consumers that they want more stuff. The default model for solving business problems has been the ‘stuff’ approach. If you’re dealing with goods, you’re churning out more goods while if you’re a services-based company, you’re putting more people on the job. The approach to scaling a solution has been creating more.

Most problems do not need to be solved by throwing stuff at them. Most problems are, actually, information problems. In reality, most problems are currently solved inefficiently because of a lack of information needed to make a decision. We’ve been solving problems by creating more stuff largely because we didn’t optimize distribution and access to the stuff that already existed.

THE ‘OPTIMIZATION’ APPROACH

Enter algorithms. You have stuff out there which is sub-optimally distributed. Here’s a two-step approach to solving the problem:

1. Aggregate all the information on the stuff out there

2. Leverage algorithms to optimally match the right stuff with a consumer’s desire

Google built one of the fastest growing companies of all time applying the optimization approach to the world’s information problem. Most internet businesses create value through optimization. Computer science, as a field of study, is itself based on solving optimization problems.

THE ‘PLATFORM’ APPROACH

Platform Thinking adds one more step to the optimization approach. Instead of merely aggregating information on stuff out there (Step 1 above), it enables creation of more inventory without creating more stuff. That sounds paradoxical but that is exactly what Twitter does to news. The media industry has a limited number of journalists. Twitter enables anyone out there to become a source of news without having to become a journalist. YouTube increases the inventory of content without setting up new media houses. eLance allows companies to get work done without having to hire people to do the job.

The ‘stuff’ approach creates supply, the ‘platform’ approach uncovers new sources of supply. The goal in this case is not only to optimize but also to redefine the input (inventory) that you are optimizing.

IN ESSENCE…

Every consumer problem out there can be solved in one of three ways:

The ‘stuff’ approach: How can we create more stuff whenever the problem crops up?

The ‘optimization’ approach: How can we better distribute the stuff already created to minimize waste?

The ‘platform’ approach: How can we redefine ‘stuff’ and find new ways of solving the same problem?

THE ACCOMMODATION PROBLEM

Problem: I’m traveling to city X and I need to end myself some accommodation.

The ‘stuff’ approach (Sheraton): Create more stuff. Build more hotels, set up more BnBs. If there are fewer rooms than tourists, buy some land, put up a  hotel and create more rooms.

The ‘optimization’ approach (Kayak): There are a lot of hotels out there but travelers do not necessarily have all the information to make the choice they want to. Let’s aggregate this inventory and create a reliable search engine. Let’s build review sites to help make the right decision.

The ‘platform’ approach (AirBnB): How can we redefine travelers’ accommodation? How about enabling anyone with a spare room and mattress to run their own BnB?

THE TRANSPORTATION PROBLEM

Problem: I need to figure out a reliable and safe way of getting from point A to point B whenever I want to.

The ‘stuff’ approach (GM, Toyota): Create more cars. The greater the number of people with this problem, the more cars you need to create.

The ‘optimization’ approach (Avis, Cab Aggregators): There are many taxi operators but consumers aren’t aware of all the choices. Let’s create a search engine and help them figure the best route to their destination and the modes of public transport that will take them there.

The ‘platform’ approach (Lyft, ZipCar, ZipRide): Let’s redefine the problem space. What if we drastically expand the number of cars available to choose from for commuting from point A to point B?

Interesting aside: Avis is acquiring ZipCar, announced a few minutes back.

THE COMPUTING PROBLEM

Problem: I need a mobile phone with all the bells and whistles but every mobile phone has a different feature set and I can’t figure the best one for myself.

The ‘stuff’ approach (Nokia): Create more phones and more models. Conduct your market research, figure out what consumers want, bucket them into groups and design new models for these groups.

The ‘optimization’ approach (Comparison shopping): There are a lot of phones out there. Why don’t you enter your parameters and we will spew out the best phone models that satisfy your needs.

The ‘platform’ approach (Apple): Let’s rethink the phone. We can’t build everything. What if we just built out the tools that others could use to build apps that consumers could then use to extend the functionality of their phone?

THE NEWS PROBLEM

Problem: I need to know about what’s happening around the world.

The ‘stuff’ approach (NY Times): Put more journalists on the job, churn out more content and get the news out to more channels.

The ‘optimization’ approach (Google News): Rank news stories and serve readers with the matches closest to what they’re looking for.

The ‘platform’ approach (Twitter): Redefine the journalist. Everyone can create and distribute news now.

CHALLENGES

The platform approach is new. Much of this problem solving has come up only in the last five years and few solutions have demonstrated the kind of success that the ‘stuff’ approach and the ‘optimization’ approach have. Hence, one might be tempted to dismiss this as a fad.

While execution challenges continue to exist, they are, by all means, solvable.

Inventory: When you redefine inventory as AirBnB or oDesk does, you need to ensure you have a clear strategy for encouraging users to create the inventory. This often leads to a chicken and egg problem as producers won’t create inventory unless there’s a ready market of consumers and consumers won’t participate without inventory to consume. I’ve written a lot about how to solve this problem in earlier posts.

Quality: When an entirely new set of producers gets created, quality control can be a problem. Platforms need to have robust quality control mechanisms to separate the good from the bad.

External forces: We need new regulations for these new models. Über has already had problems with regulations. We need to solve for trust in the virtual world. Airbnb has already come under the scanner on this count.

Platforms, though, are here to stay and redefine the way business is conducted.

Wish you all a successful 2013! More power to you and your business as you leverage the power of platforms to change the world!

This blog was first published at Plaformed.info

Organize BarCamp and Build a $ 119 Million Idea: The Amazing Story of SlideShare

The first Indian BarCamp was help in 2006. At this unconference, it was the fortuitous breakdown in managing the distribution of speaker presentations that led to the Idea we all know as SlideShare. Today, we hear their story in an interview with the SlideShare Co-Founder – Mr. Amit Ranjan.

ProductNation: Hi Amit, Welcome to ProductNation. We are really looking forward to hear your story. So please share all the excitement and emotion that you have gone through in your journey as a product entrepreneur.

Amit Ranjan: The team got together in 2004. We were three founders including me of which two were based in the US. We built another product before SlideShare.

We were building an online research application called MindCanvas that had a narrow focus on design, user experience and usability. We started building in 2004 and launched it after eighteen months. We were a team of 7 – 8 people then.

Once launched, it started doing very well. But, what we realized that this product was suited to the B2B consulting space and thus would scale with people and not technology. So that was a disconnect. And we asked ourselves if this is what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives? The Answer – No.  So we started looking for other options.

ProductNation: SlideShare, you mean

Amit Ranjan: SlideShare as an idea happened at this juncture. The SlideShare idea was born in Delhi itself.  Avinash is aware of this. The story goes something like this. We were instrumental in organizing the first BarCamp in India. This was in March 2006 at the Adobe office in Noida.

A BarCamp is like an antithesis of a conference where attendees interested in a particular topic come together and put up a show. The SlideShare idea was born at that Bar Camp.

As the organizers we found ourselves sandwiched between two groups – presenters and attendees. The presenters wanted to share the presentations and the attendees wanted to have them. So, pen drives were being exchanged and emails with attachments were flying across the BarCamp. At the same time, there were a bunch of guys who had taken photos and videos of the presentations to put it up on YouTube and Flickr.

So, presentations that formed the Centre stage of the conference, their sharing process itself was broken. So, we started looking around if there was an online tool available to share presentations. And we found that nothing existed. So that was the starting point for SlideShare.

ProductNation: Wow. Amit, would you like to talk about your pre-2004 days? How were you thinking about entrepreneurship? Was it something that you had it in yourself? Would you like to describe that journey?

Amit Ranjan: Entrepreneurship has been accidental. It is not something that I had planned. I am an MBA and a mechanical engineer. Post MBA, I worked in the consumer products sales and marketing space. I worked with Asian Paints for four years in the Sales and Distribution function and then with Pepsi. So, I did not come from a technology background. My six year experience in the Corporate Sector was good, just that I could not see myself doing that for the rest of my life. And there was a lot of exciting stuff happening around. It was not planned that way, but when an opportunity came to try something new, we went for it.

ProductNation: Superb. Please tell us about SlideShare journey, the acquisition by LinkedIn and the future plans.

Amit Ranjan: SlideShare was started in 2006. Thankfully, since then we have seen continuous growth. This meant scaling up in technology, hiring a team, which meant funding. The sheer frenetic pace at which the application was growing taught us all about building a startup.

We had an office in Delhi and in the US Bay area. At the time of the LinkedIn acquisition we had 35 people in Delhi and 13 in the US.  Delhi team was always dominant.

In terms of the acquisition, we had a relationship with LinkedIn since 2008. LinkedIn has an application platform in which they had invited a bunch of companies. SlideShare was one of them. LinkedIn knew the company and the people. So, a relationship already existed and acquisition was a logical next step. LinkedIn is the World’s largest professional network and SlideShare, a large professional sharing community. We all agreed that there was a strong product level fit. So we began acquisition talks in the beginning of 2012.

ProductNation: Would you put the LinkedIn acquisition as your moment of glory?

Amit Ranjan: The acquisition, the way I see it was a logical step in the evolution of the company. For me, the greatest thing is SlideShare itself that we could build something large and useful. The evolution of SlideShare has always been centre stage. After five years of starting up, in 2012 when the LinkedIn opportunity came by, we saw the possibility of having more resources through a large company to grow SlideShare. And we went with it.

ProductNation: What are the future plans for SlideShare at this moment, Amit?

Amit Ranjan: SlideShare will continue as a LinkedIn subsidiary. Going forward, you will see more integrations being offered to users.

ProductNation: What has been your key learning’s while building SlideShare?

Amit Ranjan: Sharp focus on Design, Engineering and Product Management. The web is changing furiously. Applications are being launched at the drop of a hat. Most die in days. So, if you are in the products space, you have to get on top with Design, Engineering and Product Management. No doubt about that.

ProductNation: Do you have a Top 3 for a budding product entrepreneur? Top 3 things you would like product entrepreneurs to register when approaching a products business.

Amit Ranjan: An engineering culture. In the long run, you need to have a strong engineering oriented culture in the company. Because culture would define a lot of things. It defines the organization itself, the people who join, the way you work, the way you tackle competition and the way you tackle markets.

The product and technology should be built for speed and not initially for scalability. This way you can focus on acquiring users, initially. There are cases where products optimize for scalability but struggle with the initial traction.

Thirdly, access to strong mentors. At SlideShare, we had some great advisors and mentors who really helped us think clearly. Having a bunch of good advisors really helps.

ProductNation: Amit, can you please explain this tradeoff between speed and scalability with an example, if possible?

Amit Ranjan: Technical example – Databases. Relational databases hit a wall when hitting a certain number of users. But, it is easy to find talent for relational databases. So, when starting off why bother optimizing with some other database. Scalability is a Rich Man’s problem.

ProductNation: Superbly put and aptly summarized. Amit, you have been in the products space for a while. Do you see entrepreneurs committing mistakes and it’s too late before they even realize it?

Amit Ranjan: Difficult to generalize. If you ask me personally, if I start again, would I do things differently. The answer is YES. And it would be Time Management. When building a startup, there is a lot riding on the entrepreneur. Looking back, I reckon if I had hired senior / specialized people for a few functions, I could have focused time on the product. That is one area, where I could have really done better.

ProductNation: Amit, how much did the US presence, being in the valley help SlideShare?

Amit Ranjan: I wish I could make a claim that SlideShare is completely an Indian company. Unfortunately that’s not correct. Our origin has a mix on India and US. The product was born in India, two of the three founders are Indian, the majority of the team is in India, but the company was headquartered in the US as the business was more US centric. Having a presence in the Bay Area and being connected to the early adopter crowd there is a great advantage. But unlike our times, now in 2012, an environment is now available in India.

We had Dave McClure as a mentor and there was no way we could have accessed him in India in 2006. But now Dave McClure’s fund is extremely active in India. They are looking at opportunities. So entrepreneurs in India now have the opportunity.

ProductNation: Before we let you go, you have to take this one. Name Top five hot products from India.

Amit Ranjan: Oh gosh. While a lot depends on how you define a product, but I would like to mention Zoho, InMobi, SlideShare. There are some smaller startups that are creating a global impact like Fusion Charts, Visual Website Optimizer.

ProductNation: Last question. What is next for Amit Ranjan on the professional front?

Amit Ranjan: I am part of LinkedIn. I continue to head the Delhi office of SlideShare. With the LinkedIn angle, we want to take SlideShare to the Next Level. That goal stays and I work as hard as before. Being part of LinkedIn, we have a better chance with access to resources and talent. So I am busy.

Product Nation

Amit, thank you for talking to ProductNation. Good luck to you and your team

Platform Play Versus Product Play in an Indian Scenario-Part 1

From the beginning, we at Ozonetel had always wanted to build a platform. Initially, we did a VXML platform with off the shelf hardware. But VXML was not sexy enough and there were not a lot of takers. So in 2010, we did a pivot and built our own custom hardware( PRI cards) and built KooKoo and top of it. KooKoo was our attempt at Telephony Platform as a Service play. Once KooKoo was opened to the developers it took off and we got good traction. A lot of innovative telephony apps were built on top of KooKoo and telephony became cool again.
After 6-8 months, we started to think about building products and do a product play. A couple of things influenced our decision to do a product play. First was that though innovative telephony apps like connecting experts, water alerts, appointment reminders etc were being built on KooKoo, core telephony apps like PBX systems and call centers were not being built and there was a huge market opportunity. Second was that, being a bootstrapped company, market forces made us to look at alternative sources of revenue as the customer turnaround time in a platform play is longer. They have to first build their apps, market them, make money and then only they pay us 🙂
So with that, we separated out a product team in Ozonetel who would go on to build two core telephony products, a PBX on the cloud called asBizPhone and a full featured cloud call center product called as Cloudagent. So now that I have seen both the scenarios of a platform play and a product play, I thought I would share some pointers in both(no particular order).
Platform Play:
  1. Patience: You should have a lot of patience. Developers will take their own sweet time in building the application and marketing it. Many times, you will want to get in and help them develop. But that is not scalable. Though it will take time, it is better for them to figure out the solutions on their own as in the long run that will mean lesser support.
  2. Documentation: This is the most important part. You wont believe the amount of support calls that are reduced by having some decent documentation. Unfortunately, this is one area where we still have to improve and thats why we still get support calls.
  3. Logging: Your platform should explain what is happening behind the scenes to the developer through logs. It will help them in debugging the issue themselves before they reach out to support.
  4. API: Think through what and how you want to expose your API. Because, once you open it to the public and they start using it, it will be really hard to take back and you will end up supporting multiple versions.
  5. Evangelize: You should have a team of evangelists who should go to events, do live coding, help hacking communities etc to drive adoption. This is the hardest part, convincing developers to invest their time in learning your platform. It is much harder in India as the hacker community is in a nascent stage(though growing very very well).
  6. Star products: Every platform should have some star performers. They are the ones which will help in people believing in your product. Identify your star products and put all your efforts in making sure they succeed.
  7. Mashups and Blog: Build mashups on your platform yourself to showcase the capabilities. You know your platform best, so you will have to build very innovative and fun apps. After building mashups, blog about them and spread the word. Again, in India, its hard to build mashups with content from an Indian context. Till last year, we did not have a lot of APIs for Indian content. But now a lot of companies like Zomato have started opening up APIs and phone mashups can easily be built.
  8. Support: This will make or break your platform. Developers have very little patience. If they send a mail to support, they better get a response within 5-10 minutes. Otherwise, they will end up Googling for another platform which will solve their platform. Luckily, so far at least we have been able to keep our developers happy with our support. Support does not just mean technical support. Many times we have actually had to mentor a lot of startups building on our platform. You should be willing to listen to their problems and suggest advice if you have any.
  9. Developer events: You should conduct developer events and hackathons so that the new developers get to know about your platform. Unfortunately, being bootstrapped, we have not yet had funds to do this 🙂
  10. Sponsor events: In addition to conducting events, another way of getting mindshare of developers is to sponsor events. We are continuous sponsors of Startup Weekend events in India and have also sponsored hackathons in colleges like BITS where students have built very innovative applications.
In the next part I will discuss my observations on the product play.

How far should you go with Professional Services in your product business?

Turning on a giant switch

For any products company, product support is a given, and part of the products business fabric. However, almost all Enterprise Products Companies end-up offering the professional services beyond basic product support. These services could range from simplistic implementation support, to integration, to solutions-building, to architectural consulting, to IT advisory support. The decision to perform professional services could be driven by customer-demand, or by the intrinsic need of the product being sold, or even driven by the business strategy itself to generate peripheral revenue.

It’s important to understand where the boundaries lie, and what goal does a certain type of professional services serve. The decision to commit to a particular type of professional services needs to be driven by a conscious thought process. This is important because the time & resources required to build various skills & operating models for serving the various flavors, change dramatically from one to the other.

Professional Services in Products Business

1. Product Support

This is the core to the products model and serves as just that – support to the main products revenue, and to ensure customer satisfaction. While the core strategy for any product should be to make it so good that it requires minimal support, there’s always a need for support – offline and real-time for the customers.

2. Implementation Services

An ideal product is ready-to-use off-the-shelf, however, in case of Enterprise products the need to configure & customize could wary. Most times, customers demand for an implementation service packaged in the license deal initially, in order to ensure success. Most times, products businesses have to employ this mechanism also to close sales cycle and to ensure a consistent source of post-sale revenue from such services, and also indirectly to ensure expansion of the product usage through consistent personnel presence on the customer premises.

3. Integration Services

This is where it starts going slightly further away from the core skills that the organization may possess organically. Integration with the existing IT systems and other products at the customer premises would require the skills & management practices beyond the core areas of the organization. An extra source of revenue is one of the temptations, but there are also scenarios where integration of the product is critical to the success of the product, making such services mandatory. This is especially true if the product interfaces are not built with open-standards, and require the integrators to know the details of how the product is built internally. The correct approach would be to build the product interfaces in a way that doesn’t force the business into such compromise to induct professional services for integration. There’s an indirect impact of diversion of core product resources to such integration projects unless such professional services are pursued by design, and resources built accordingly.

4. Solutions & Consulting Services

This is where the game gets strategic, and resources expensive. And the reasons to do this are not any more intrinsically important, but strategically targeted to higher value to the customers and hence, access to the larger pie of the wallet. However, this is easier said than done. Unless there’s enough scale & case in the existing business to allow the focus on such services, strategic, and by design, a business is better off focusing on building the core products business stronger by investing resources there. This makes sense for the products, which are more like Platforms that provide larger leverage than in a Point-solution product.

5. Advisory Services

This is important for the products that are targeted for larger ticket sizes and are built for Enterprise-wide deployments. The IT strategy alignment as well as the strategic positioning of the product becomes important, and it also requires much larger IT leadership level involvement. For Enterprise Platforms, or even for departmental level strategic investments, this approach to professional services can bear fruits. However, building it into a business line requires the core product business to be strong, ready for the leap.

So what?

While the Businesses can look at starting off with the lower scale of Professional Services and build up over time, the decision is very strategic and long term. Professional Services, while offering additional top-line, could actually be a resource-intensice and money-draining proposition if not built properly. The mindset that governs the professional services line of business is drastically different from the product side of business. The operational efficiency is paramount, & profitability can very quickly take a hit. Even more importantly, professional services are more intensely people-driven and the skill sets required to build and sustain this business over long term are not trivial. Look, think, and think hard, before you leap.

PS: There are other considerations on Professional Services that directly or indirectly impact the core product business. I will cover in those in the next post. Until then, hope this helps! 🙂

Product LaunchPAD: Putting the spotlight on 9 quality tech products

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

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

Let’s get some context.

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

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

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

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

The nine Product LaunchPAD companies selected for 2012 are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why aren’t more developers creating serious Mobile App Products?

Mobile Apps

These are the times, when every third person that you meet in Technology world has an idea for an App. It could be every alternate person if you’re hanging out in geeky groups or among heavy Smartphone users.

The Industry trends suggest a phenomenal surge as well. According to Gartner, Mobile Apps Store downloads worldwide for the year 2012 will surpass 45.6 billion. Out of these, nearly 90% are free Apps, while out of the rest of 5 billion downloads majority (90% again) cost less than $3 per download. This trend has a strong growth curve for the next five years. (See Table 1. Mobile App Store Downloads, courtesy: Gartner) 

Another report suggests that 78% of US mobile App Companies are small businesses (based on the Apple and Android App Stores based research). The typical apps that dominate this market are games, education, productivity, and business.

Mobile App Store Downloads - Gartner 2012

This comes as no surprise. There is a huge divide between the Enterprise Mobility (dominated by the Enterprise Architecture, existing platforms and mobility extensions to the platforms that ensure business continuity) and End-User (Consumer) Mobile Apps dominated by the App Stores supported Small and Mid-size App Development Companies. The barriers to entry in the Smart phone Apps Market seem pretty low with the supporting ecosystem from Apple, Amazon, Google, and Telecom carriers.

However, let’s get back to the fact that majority of these Apps “do not” generate direct revenue.

While the entry seems without barriers, there are multiple hurdles on the race track:

1. Developers need to focus on the User Experience. The smartphone apps pick-up is highly skewed toward Apps that offer a good user experience even for minimal functionality. After the initial success, the App makers end up adding functionality for sustained interest, but the User Experience tops. It’s difficult to focus on UX while still trying to do everything right at the underlying architecture level for long term.

2. Marketing is important. Getting the early eyeballs is key for the App developers. Any serious App needs an immediate initial take-off, and among the things that they need to do to make it happen is to market the App beforehand and to get the authoritative reviews in place.

3. Initial Take-off is just the first hurdle. App needs to be able to handle traffic bursts, it needs scale with increased traction, support virality & social connects inherently, and also build an effective User ecosystem. None of these may seem like the core functional features of the App, but are most critical for the broad-based success.

4. The Freemium model is very popular, but it can kill the business if the marginal costs are not sustainable. The paradox of the Free model is that unless the 10% paid users are able to pay for your 100% costs, every additional user takes you closer to the grave. With this come in two questions – how do you keep the infrastructural costs low, and how do you build additional revenue models around the app.

  • IaaS can solve some of the infrastructural headache, but doesn’t provide you with the other functional layers that every App needs. You need to still build them. PaaS providers provide the scalable platform for building Apps, but you still need to build some of the functional features such as Gaming Rooms support, Messaging, User Authentication & authorization models, and so on. Mobile developers are still doing a lot of repetitive work across the smartphone Apps that can be consolidated into a framework.
  • Supporting the additional revenue models require integration with external Ad-services, Payment systems and more importantly the bandwidth to deal with this even more fragmented set of agencies.

5. The End-point device platforms are fragmented and getting even more so. A typical model for App developers is to develop an Android App, iOS App or a Windows App and then support the other platforms as they go along. However, keeping up with these multiple platforms is only getting more and more difficult with the speed with which Apple, Microsoft, and Google keep rolling out the OS. There’s tremendous pressure to release the App within the 1-3 days window of the release of the underlying platform.

Hence, while there are millions of people developing smartphone Apps as we speak, there are only a fraction that get built at serious level, and even smaller fraction that gets built for sustainable business success.

And considering these hurdles, the arrival of the Backend-as-a-Service (BaaS) is a blessing for the App Developers. Forrster’s Michael Facemire refers to them as “The New Lightweight Middleware”. He goes ahead and lists out some of the basic tenets of what makes a Mobile Backend as a Service, but I see this list evolving as the vendors offer more and more functionality to the customers leading to en ecosystem.

And the term “ecosystem” is going to be the key. That’s because a successful mobile App doesn’t stop at the user starting the app, using the app, and leaving the app. A successful App creates an ecosystem for the viral growth, user engagement, social functionality, in-built broad-based connectivity for multi-user interactions, and more importantly the ability for cross-platform usage. In a Gaming scenario, the user interactions and the relevant immediate feedbacks are paramount. Most successful apps build an ecosystem. Instagram, 4Square, Pinterest are the common household examples today.

ShepHertz App42 Cloud API is complete backend as service to help app developers develop, buid and deploy their app on the cloud.While Michael lists out the usual suspects in his post, most of them in the Silicon Valley, there is a very interesting player in Shephertz’s App42 platform, right here in India. The ecosystem approach that they have taken seems pretty much what may be required for serious app developers that need a robust backend provided as a service, so that they can focus on the app functionality, user experience, and more importantly the marketing aspects of the App.

Now why, still, aren’t more and more developers building even more serious mobile App products? Why shouldn’t they be? I think, they will!