SaaS and Silicon Valley are Game-Changers in India

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

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

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

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

Read the Complete article at Sandhill.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pallav Nadhani’s list of  Top 10 mistakes entrepreneurs make

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going back in time – background

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

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

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

The Idea

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

The Product – ClearTax

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

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

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

The Product Eco-System and what it takes to succeed

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

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

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

Incumbents and competitors have to be out-executed.

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

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

Techcircle SaaS Forum 2012 announces top 10 SaaS startups in India

If there is one area within the new-age technology that is red hot right now, it is software-as-a-service or SaaS – both in terms of startup activity and as a tool for entrepreneurs to build a low-cost business from scratch. Techcircle.in has come up with a listing of India’s top 10 emerging SaaS companies who have shown significant market traction, created unique products or services that can disrupt existing markets and most importantly, have a very high potential to make it big in the coming years. The listing has been compiled by a distinguished jury comprising Shailendra Singh, MD, Sequoia Capital; Manik Arora, MD, IDG Ventures and Mukund Mohan, an active angel investor. These 10 companies have also showcased their products during Techcircle Runway at Techcircle SaaS Forum 2012, in Bangalore on Aug 31. Here are brief notes on the 10 startups (note: this not a ranking, the companies are arranged in alphabetical order).

Read the complete post at TechCircle.in