As a part of the new, experimental PuneTech video series, we interviewed Anand Soman, CEO of Pune-based startup Infinishare, and serial entrepreneur. Infinishare provides software for a host of internet enabled devices, including digital photoframe devices, digital displays, home internet devices. They provide a full software stack for such devices, but their core IP is in device-to-cloud, and device-to-device communications.
Before Infinishare, Anand has had two successful exits as an entrepreneur – one for a bootstrapped startup, and one for a VC funded startup. See the PuneTech report of last year’s POCC meeting “How (and Why) to bootstrap your own startup,” for some of Anand’s thoughts on this topics.
In today’s video we asked him about his company, and more importantly about what advice he has for young entrepreneurs. (We are still experimenting with our video creation process, so the sound is still bad. We will had a fix for this soon, but in the meantime, please max the volume when you view this video):
Some interesting excerpts from this interview:
Don’t develop any software until you have a customer (so you’re sure there’s a market)
Focus on paying customers from the beginning
It is very difficult to get the freemium model to work
If you have users for your product who are not paying, don’t call them customers! Get real paying customers
See the video for these and other insights.
About Anand Soman
Anand is co-founder of Infinishare technologies.
Before Infinishare, Anand founded Intigma Inc, where they wrote AI-based engines for automated classification and extraction of content. Intigma was acquired by Emptoris Inc., after which Anand headed their India centre. Before Intigma, Anand founded Testchip Technologies, developing tools and cell libraries for Testchip design. Testchip was acquired by HPL Technologies Inc.
Anand received his B.Tech from IIT Bombay, and was the recipient of the Institute Medal for Electrical Engg. He received his M.S.E.E. and Ph.D degrees from California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, USA, specializing in DSP & Communications. He worked at AT&T, Murray Hill, before founding Testchip. He has published numerous research papers in International Journals & Conferences and has several years of project execution & management experience.
Pune based backup software startup Druvaa has gone from being a 3-person startup that presented at proto.in 18 months back, to a 16-person company that is profitable, and sponsored proto.in this weekend. We caught up with Jaspreet Singh of Druvaa during proto and had a conversation with him about how they are doing.
Note: Please turn up the volume. The sound quality is not-so-great. (Hopefully future videos will be better.)
Please also check out the older PuneTech articles about Druvaa:
Interesting note: You’ll notice that over the years, Druvaa has shifted gears from selling continuous protection (which they started off with) to remote backups (which is their primary product now). This is a feature of any startup – adapting to the needs of the market.
Ajit Shelat, Senior Vice President of Engineering, Nevis Networks
Nevis Networks, a mostly-Pune-based-company (with “official” headquarters in the US, and an additional center in China), builds network switches and other network hardware that allows a company to secure it’s internal network from attacks and to enforce identity-based security policies. The company’s LANenforcer product family transparently protects the network from external malicious attacks, and also allows restricting access to different network resources based on users’ identities according to policies set by the system administrators. This can be customized to ensure different levels of access to different classes of users, employees, contractors, guests and other third parties. In addition, the product allows detailed reporting, auditing, employee activity reports that make it possible to analyze security breaches in very granular detail. And because it is hardware based, all of this is delivered in realtime with very low latency.
Nevis Networks’ customers range from financial services, healthcare, education and defense contractors and they deploy Nevis LANenforcers to protect sensitive network resources and assets, with an intention of reducing the overall costs and time to resolve security breaches and conduct network audits. The company is headquartered in Mountain View, CA, with additional R&D centers in Pune, India and Beijing, China.
The ongoing recession has hit Nevis Networks hard, and it downsized a very large fraction of its workforce late last year. On top of that, on Monday, in a report title “LSI Acquires Manpower Team of Navis Networking”, CXOToday implied that the company (which they alternately identified as Navis Networks or Nevis Networks in the article) had shutdown and the team taken over by LSI. Specifically, this is what CXOToday said:
With recession being an opportunity to invest for big MNCs, LSI Technologies, a provider of innovative silicon, systems and software technologies has acquired the team of Navis Networking based at Pune. With the R&D unit based out of Mountain View, California shutting down, LSI has acquired the manpower of the captive R&D centre in India.
After hearing from PuneTech readers that this report is misleading, we caught up with Ajit Shelat, Senior Vice President of Engineering for Nevis Networks, to learn that the reports of Nevis’ demise have been greatly exaggerated. Here is a quick report of the conversation we had with Ajit:
On the news that LSI has “acquired” the “manpower” of Nevis but not the company.
The report by CXOToday is misleading. What actually happened is much simpler. Due to the economic downturn last year, Nevis Networks was looking to downsize some of its workforce. A friendly interaction between the respective managements of Nevis and LSI led to movement of some of Nevis manpower to LSI. This was a simple case of Nevis ex-employees being hired by LSI en masse. It does not represent any sort of acquisition or even agreement between Nevis and LSI. And these are certainly not the entire team of Nevis Networks India, as implied by the CXOToday article.
In any case, Nevis networks is not shutting down. It continues to execute on a with strategy and focus.
On the current status of Nevis Networks
Nevis networks core team is still there and it is going strong. In fact, the last quarter was quite good and has been the best quarter for Nevis since the inception of the company.
What has happened is that due to the downturn, Nevis shifted its focus away from the US market to the India and China markets, reduced its workforce in the US and in India, and this new strategy appears to be working for them.
On the surprising fact that India/China are better markets than the US market
Since Nevis Networks is selling cutting edge technology, one would have expected US to be the logical market for these products. However, people really underestimate the extent of the effect the economic recession is having on the market there. While the markets really melted around September 2008, the signs have been obvious for at least an year before that, and starting Nov/Dec 2007, Nevis had started planning its strategy of shifting focus away from the US market to the India/China markets.
In tune with their new strategy, Nevis substantially reduced its India workforce. They continue to support existing customers in the US, but new customers are coming mainly from India – which is apparently not affected by the recession as much. In general, it is easier for a company with mainly Indian promoters to sell in India than in other countries.
China is another country where sales are expected to grow – Nevis is in the process of stengthening its sales presence in China. The Chinese market, having a significantly different character, takes a longer ramp up time to achieve its full potential – though a very good start has been made in terms of immediate sales. Like other markets, achieving full potential is really a function of getting the right people on the ground, and building the right relationships and customer confidence. All this effort is justified by the fact that the Chinese market has the potential to scale up dramatically.
More about Nevis Networks
Nevis Networks was founded in 2002 with the intention of building a network security solution with high speed and low latency, using its proprietary ASIC-based technology. As of last year, Nevis had raised a total of US$40 million in three rounds of funding from premier venture capital firms New Enterprise Associates, BlueRun Ventures (formerly Nokia Venture Partners) and New Path Ventures LLC. We are told that their funding situation has recently changed and an announcement to this effect is expected in the next couple of weeks.
TouchMagix is a Pune-based startup with a product that can convert any wall of floor into an interactive touch screen. Targeted towards “high footfall” areas like malls, conferences and lobbys, it is a technology with a lot of potential, and frankly, something that we don’t expect to see out of Indian companies. After being very impressed with the demo at their Bhonsale Nagar office, we interviewed founder Anup Tapadia for PuneTech. TouchMagix technology will be on display on both days of the Hi Tech Pune Maharashtra 2009 conference in Pune on 26th and 27th – it’s definitely worth checking out. Anup will also be speaking at the conference on Friday. Read on for the interview.
Q: Can you give an overview of TouchMagix?
A: TouchMagix is a technology that allows any projection screen to be made interactive. Imagine a picture being projected on a regular wall, and a person can walk up to the wall and start interacting with the objects in the picture, and they actually react to the touch. TouchMagix technology allows adding such multi-point interactivity to any projected surface i.e walls, floors or screens. The projected surface reacts to the human gestures. It reacts to a touch, or it can react to gestures from a distance. And this can be done with any existing surface.
It is a medium that attracts crowds of all ages and helps brands “Get Noticed” with fun and interaction. It has extensive applications in retail, malls, advertising, events, promotions and gaming. We believe that this is the way brands would communicate to their consumers in future. At TouchMagix we are focussed towards building technologies and services which will aid brand owners to create an everlasting impression in consumers mind. Right now we have launched this product, and our team is overwhelmed with the response from all over the world. Now the real challenge we are facing is to accelerate the process of deployment across the globe in short amount of time. We are looking for awesome people to join this wagon!
As off now we have 2 products, MagixFloor™ and MagixWall™ which are like large multi-point touch-screens. Both the technologies use same set of hardware and software. The hardware comprises of a high-end PC, a projector and our proprietary TouchMagix sensor. The sensor feeds the signals to the PC software, which recognizes human gestures and generates an XML feed on loopback interface. This feed can be integrated with any designing software like Adobe Flash, Adobe Director, 3DS Max etc… to build games and content. We offer an Open SDK interface which can be used by creative agencies or game designers to build content for deployment on TouchMagix. We also provide a remote controlled media scheduler for rotating content on the media. We are also in the process of designing audience measurement tools that will give web based interaction statistics to an advertiser.
Q: There are existing systems in US, Israel and elsewhere which do similar things. For example, Reactrix Systems. How do you differentiate yourself from them, both from an IPR perspective and a marketing perspective.
We have a superior and cost effective technology than most of the competition around. Technology, is just one aspect of the media. The possibilities with the content that one can build on this media would establish our position. We are offering an Open SDK interface for developers that no other competitor is offering. We are also introducing a feature of audience measurement, and web management which will set us apart. Reactrix systems was a close competitor for us, but they recently shutdown despite investment of $75 Million. Any good idea badly executed can also lead to failure. Being in India, we have an cost advantage along with the technology edge to deliver this product to the world. We have a team with diverse experience in technology, advertising and gaming and we believe we can make this happen.
Q: What were the unexpected challenges that you faced in making this happen.
A: Loads of challenges surfaced during the process of development of this technology. It was like playing the game of snakes and ladders for last 2 years day-in and day-out. What we thought was working in the labs and we said hurray, was a basket of new challenges on the field. Elimination of pseudo sensing was one of the big challenges that we had to overcome.
Pseudo sensing is a problem in which the movements of the objects that are in the picture being projected need to be distinguished from the motion of the human. Earlier the system used to do false detections on the projected image thinking it was the human motion. Now we have overcome that problem.
Q: Unlike most other “IT” and “web” startups, your technology has a significant hardware component. This is not something common in India. Has that been a challenge for you?
A: I was fortunate to get an experience in both hardware and software during my journey of learning. My dad always says, “You are a jack of all trades, and master of some!”. This trait helped me in integrating hardware and software required to create the product. Having our own hardware solved lot of problems, which would have been difficult otherwise. It also helped in building the intellectual property around it.
Q: What conventional (and unconventional) means, you are trying out for marketing your product?
A: Basically we have 3 types of customers.
Private companies advertising their own product in private spaces. e.g – An mobile company putting it in their every showroom.
Public place owners where advertisers would like to advertise their products. e.g – A mall who would lease out their space to advertisers.
Short term installations for events, exhibitions, activations, promotions, parties etc.
We would be handling 1st type of customers by direct marketing initiatives. 2nd and 3rd type of customers would be handled through channel partners who have local presence. In addition to this, we will also be doing online direct marketing.
Q: What funding options have you considered?
A: The first phase was funded by Family and Friends. Along with the business plan, the next phase funding plan also would be frozen.
Q: At a very young age, you have done a lot of interesting and varied things? Can you tell us a bit about your background and the various areas you’ve worked in?
A: I started exploring computers at a very young age. At the age of 14 I became the world’s youngest Microsoft Certified professional to achieve MCSD, MCSE, MCDBA. I was fortunate to receive written compliments and motivation from Bill Gates, Azim Premji, Dr. Raghunath Mashalkar, Dr.Irwin Jacobs and many others for this achievement. At the age of 16 I started off my company TechnoKarma Labs with a vision to build innovative indian products for the global market. Our first product was 802.11b based mesh router. This router was a low cost and more efficient alternative to the way wireless networks were being deployed. During this time, I was also associated with International Institute of Information Technology, Pune (I2IT) for research in High Performance Computing under mentoring of Dr.Vijay Bhatkar. After my 12th standard at Fergusson College, I was offered to join in as a full time MS student in Networks & Telecom at I2IT skipping my engineering degree. At the age of 19 I received my 1st Masters degree. As part of my masters thesis, I had worked on a low level distributed memory management system for virtual machine clusters. After my Masters, I worked for 1 year with Qualcomm at San Diego, USA. I developed 2 products in distributed mobile computing at Qualcomm’s Corp R&D which were patented. I received an offer to join University of California, San Diego (UCSD) for Ms-PhD program in Communication Theory and Systems. I decided to join UCSD for PhD. My topic of research was Ad-Hoc networks and large scale distributed systems. During my stay in San Diego, I got a chance to work with a Venture Capital firm and get a view of several start-ups that they had invested in, or were planning to invest-in. This experience was invaluable. After completing the Master’s courses and some MBA courses I decided that I would like to come back to India, and start off TouchMagix. Presently I am on leave of absence from UCSD. I have been consulting to several start-ups in India and US on technology and product development.
Q: You could have chosen to do your startup in San Diego, or in Silicon Valley. Why did you choose to come back to India?
A: I see India as a place with ample opportunities for an entrepreneur. My dream always has been to see India as a product innovation hub rather than a BPO hub. I decided to setup my company in Pune to pursue this dream. TouchMagix Media Pvt. Ltd. is the first entity of the TechnoKarma Labs. I dream to have many more product companies like this in times to come. I love to interact with like minded people who share this vision.
Hover.in is a Pune startup that provides a service for web publishers (i.e. website/blog owners) to automatically insert extra content into the webpages, in the form of a bubble that appears when the mouse is hovered over underlined words. The bubble can be informational (like a map appearing wherever a name of a place appears, or a background information about a company appearing wherever a name of a company appears), or it can be contextual, in-text, advertisement from hover’s network of partners, and most importantly it is fully under the publisher’s control. While services like this have been around in other forms, hover.in believes that its ability to handle any language, and the focus on Indian market sets it apart from the competition. See the PuneTech profile of hover.in to get a better idea of what hover.in provides.
PuneTech interviewed Arun Prabhudesai, CEO of Hover.in, (he also runs popular Indian Business blog trak.in) to get a deeper look at hover.in. To be true to the “tech” part of PuneTech, we also asked some technical questions that were answered by Bhasker V. Kode (Bosky), CTO of Hover.
Q: Congratulations on getting funded – especially under these economic conditions. How do you plan on using this funding – what will be the focus areas?
The seed funding was finalized few months back before the whole “recession” thing started constantly ringing in our ears.
Actually, from hover.in perspective we feel this funding as more of strategic investment where Media2Win – being a leading digital media agency – will help us to go to the market. We have immensely benefitted from the experience Me2W brings on table.
The funding is being mostly used to ramp up our technical resources and infrastructure.
Q: Your main “customers” are website publishers. Are you targeting any specific geography, like India (as the .in domain name would suggest)?
Hover.in in-text platform is global and open for web publishers and bloggers from all geographies. However, we are actively targeting Indian market first. India currently does not have any in-text platform and that’s puts us in a great position to capture this market. Infact, hover.in is world’s first in-text platform that is also language agnostic, which opens up a large chunk of regional language websites.
Q: I keep hearing that “there isn’t enough money to be made from online advertisements alone in India, except for a few specific verticals.” And you seem to be going squarely after this market. What is your take on this issue?
You know, this people have started talking about because there are too many ad networks that have come up in last couple of years…more than 15 odd I can count on my fingers !
But if you look at the larger picture, online advertisements are the only ones that are growing year on year. Traditional advertising is hardest hit…
For us the advantage is, we DO NOT compete with traditional ad networks as they are 99% display advertising. We are in-text and this market has not even tapped. From publisher perspective, it is an additional channel for content and monetization.
From Advertisers, this is the most targeted way of displaying their advertisement. Also, as we follow CPA / CPC kind of model, advertisers have full ROI on investment.
Q: If I remember right, you are using Erlang for your development – a very non-standard choice. Can you share the reasons behind the choice? Isn’t it difficult to get Erlang developers? In retrospect are you happy with this decision?
Erlang has been used to build fault-tolerant and distributed applications for quite some time in areas like telecom, especially for allowing highly granular choices in networking. Off-late projects like ejabberd, mnesia, yaws and tsung have shown how products spanning several hundred nodes can be implemented with the erlang stack and in particular – web technologies.
It most definitely is a paradigm shift courtesy of it’s functional programming concepts, and we are glad we took that decision because of its inherent focus on distributed systems, and although the erlang developer community in India is non-existent, with the right attitude towards learning now a day’s it does’nt matter. Moreover it only took a couple of months for our developers to get used to the semantics, following which as with any stack – it’s about what you do with that expertise.
Erlang gives you that power, but at the same time – there are areas where it might not seem a right fit and perhaps look to perl or ruby for tasks that suit them. For example, we use python wherever it seems required as well. The good part is erlang open-source community has quite a closely-knit presence online, which does help quite a lot. We ourselves are now looking at contributing and opening up internal projects.
Q: One of the important challenges for hover.in will be scalability. How are you gearing up to handle that?
Right from day one, erlang based systems like ours are designed built for horizontal scaling – which allows plug-n-play addition to our growing cluster. Regardless of the development stack you work on – some things need to be built in early and that’s something we spend a whole lot of time during our first year fine tuning.
Especially for us – where practically every page hit – for every one of our users – reflects a page visit to us where we need to compute and render hovers in a matter of milliseconds. To this end – before starting out application-logic, we first built out our own distributed priority-queuing systems, our own distributed crawler and various indexing mechanisms, a time-splicing based cpu allocation for various tasks, which made things like adding jobs, executing them a more controlled operation regardless of what the actual job is and has been handling burst mode quite well.
Moreover, we can also add workers on-the-fly to almost all major tasks much like an Amazon ec2 instance where each work itself is supervised for crash recovery thanks to erlang’s open telecom platform libraries and guidelines. Caching is something else we have and continue to work on consistently. No matter how many papers, algorithms or implementations there are out there – every system needs to fine tune their own unique set of optimizations vs compromises that reflect their infrastructure, traffic, memory & space needs,etc ..
Having granular control of this is something that is a real challenge as well as a pleasure with the stack (Linux, Yaws, Mnesia, Erlang). We ‘ve also been quick to adopt cloud-computing initiatives like Amazon s3, and more recently cloudfront for our static content delivery needs.
We’re also working on a parallel map-reduce implementation, exploring options with xmpp, and better logging for our developers to find and fix glitches or bottlenecks, eventually translating to a faster and better user experience for our users.
Q: You moved to Pune specifically to start hover.in. What made you choose Pune?
Yes, I did move to Pune to start hover.in, however, it would not be fair to say that is the only reason why I moved here. I have lived most of my formative years here in Pune, before going to USA. And as you know, once a Puneite, always a Puneite!
Actually we had to choose from 2 cities – Chennai (Our Co-founder, Bhasker VK, is from Chennai) and Pune. Few important aspects tilted the balance in favour of latter. Better weather, Pune’s proximity to Mumbai where majority of big publishers, investors and advertisers have their offices. To add to it all Pune has great startup & tech community.
Q: In the journey so far, have you made any significant mistakes that you’d like to share with others, so they can learn from your experience?
Absolutely… Mistakes are important aspect of learning process and especially for first generation entrepreneurs like Bosky and Me. I think “attention to detail” is one of the most important aspects that an entrepreneur should watch for. You need to have clear in-depth blueprint in your mind about the direction your startup is going to take, otherwise it’s very easy to fall off the cliff!
Optimizing, especially during these tough times – be it resources, infrastructure or even your time. Optimize everything. Startups can’t afford any leaks.
The third thing and the one which I don’t see very often. Partner with other startups; see if there are any synergies between you. In most cases it is a win-win situation for both of them
Q: Are you partnering with other startups? At this stage, would it be possible for you to share info about any of these partnerships?
Yes, we are…one example would be Alabot (another Pune startup -ed.). Where we have got their NLP application (Travel bot) inside our hoverlet. So for any travel related publishers, it becomes a boon. So a win-win situation for both of us.
Another example would be – Before we got our own office, 2 other startups were kind enough to accommodate us for few weeks – These kind of partnerships in any way possible go a long way !
Q: What would your advice for struggling Pune entrepreneurs be?
Entrepreneurship is a roller coaster ride … It ain’t easy, but the thrills along the way make it all more than worth it!
Just jump into the rough waters and by the time you reach the other side, you will be glad you did it….
Nashik based StartupForStartups (SFS) is marketing itself as a “facility to help early stage companies with limited resources to build first cut of the product (V0.5/V1.0)”. Founder Sushrut Bidwai is a regular fixture at Pune startup events, and is trying to convince Pune-based startups to outsource work to his programmers in Nashik, promising that it will be cheaper than doing it themselves. PuneTech interviewed Sushrut to get a first-hand take on SFS’ value proposition.
Can you give an overview of StartupForStartups?
Many times people have good ideas, but dont have guts OR are shouldering family responsibilities, which does not allow them to pursue these ideas further. In some cases none of the founding team members are from tech background, so even getting a good CTO is difficult for them (salary wise as well skill wise) . StartupForStartups (SFS for short) is meant for such teams. Its better to have something ready before taking the risk of quitting (high paying) jobs. It gives you more insight into product you are building as well domain you are targeting.
What SFS does is, it provides you resources required to build that beta version which you will show to investors (if its a big product) or will launch to limited audience and see how market reacts to it. After having this beta ready and some reactions from market or investors it becomes easier to take the risk and pursue it further full time.
Why are you doing this in Nashik? I would have thought that being in Pune or Bangalore (near all the startups, who are your customers) would make more sense for you?
Problems with Pune and Banglore are operational costs and resource costs. Also Nasik will have lower attrition rates and keeping people happy is easier. With technologies pushing the boundaries, we have so many tools available which makes working in distributed teams far easier. We even can do pair programming with two people sitting 5000 miles away from each other using WebEx/dimdim/Skype. Also it provides lot of cost advantages to startups we are working with.
As a customer, one of the worries I would have with StartupForStartups, is the availability of quality talent in Nashik. How are you tackling this?
We have developed a unique training program called “Implementing Concepts” which all our engineers go through before joining any startup team. So even if a particular engineer has gone through it once for a particular project, he/she will go through it again using the technologies which are going to be used in new project. This kind of a very elaborate HelloWorld for a project. Also, my experience in working on tech products is 80% of work is trivial and 20% is core work which is complex. So even if a startup is working on a product which is complex, they can take help of our resource in rest of 80% work. Though this does not mean we do not have expertise to take up complex work, it just means we are flexible and are okay with working as part of larger team. Also this is not outsourcing model, it is collaboration model. So you know who is working on your product and what that persons skills are and you can choose from the pool available. Also, to keep high availability of quality talent we are in process of collaborating with colleges here in Nasik. In this we will take the training program to colleges and have students go through them while working on final year projects. Please note that we do not assign interns on the projects.
Considering that most of your customers are early-stage startups who are strapped for cash, how do you plan on charging them for your services?
Charging is transparent. We send details about salaries we are paying to engineers assgined assigned to work on a particular startup and plus typically 20% operational costs. Now if you consider Nasik and typical salaries engineers expect and are more than happy with are much lesser than in Pune/Banglore. We already have the infrastructure and are building team. We are planning to build a team of 12-15 people by Dec end.
Could you give us an idea of what kind of savings I can expect compared to outsourcing to a company in Pune? (Where are the savings coming from: lower salaries, or other factors too?)
Lower costs for resources.
Lower operational costs. Just to give you indicator of savings, an Entry level GWT/J2EE programmer will draw salaries in the range of 17-22K in Pune/Banglore same programmer if he/she is from Nasik will be more than content to work on a good startup team if given around 9-10K salary. Plus you have to keep him/her happy so there is no attrition. Spend money on infrastructure like office space/ furniture/ hardware/ software / electricity / lunch facilities and many non-tangible costs like FBTs/Mediclaim facilities etc etc. you save these costs by almost 70%.
What do you see as your key competencies?
Experience of working in large scale product companies as well as early stage startups.
Top management has excellent problems solving and product designing skills.
Understand working on an Idea and processes involved in the same.
We are young, enthu, full of energy and love working on good ideas. (This is probably the most important quality.)
In the context of StartupForStartups, I’ve heard you talk about having a startup ecosystem. Can you elaborate on that?
This eco system is for people who are still in jobs and want pursue ideas. Though part of it can be used by full time entrepreneurs.
We are signing an MoU with a financial and legal service provider company having experienced in handling these services for startups.
We are creating pool of consultants (Architects, Performance engineering, Marketing/Advertising, HR, Viral Video creators etc).
We are collaborating with engineering colleges here in Nasik. We have designed an unique training program “Implementing Concepts” which is focused on training engineering students with latest technology and early stage product engineering.
We are talking to people who have the expertise of providing mentoring to early stage companies even before product is built OR evolved. Though we are in early stages of discussions with these people, but hopefully it will happen.
We are building a tool (looking to raise funds for this tool) which is designed around a process called Super-Agile, which I will be publishing shortly. This tool and process are targeted for early stage product development. The tool will make writing code almost a trivial thing and even non-tech background people after a little training can build the products first cut on their own.
Network. Not all startup founders are well connected. It takes lot of time to connect with people who can provide you help in building the startup. We can help there by connecting you with people we know, so its some starting point.
Knowledge-base. Startup entrepreneurs does not have time to go through lengthy tax stuff etc. Or does not have time to design their documents like Offer letters, seperation letters, NDAs. Over a period of time we will collect such documents and put them in an inventory. This inventory can be very valuable to startups.
Note that all the services mentioned above does not necessarily come with a price tag. Some are out of goodwill some are for money 🙂 . Our main problem is we are young, have the skillsets necessary to pursue an idea and make it to successful business. But we do not have the idea. So we want to work with people who do have it.
For those interested in meeting, Sushrut is in Pune today (25th September 2008) and is likely to attend the CSI Pune Seminar on Entrepreneurship. I know that there are a bunch of PuneTech readers who have an idea for a startup but haven’t made much progress yet because they haven’t been able to quit their job and take the plunge. If you are one of those, would you be willing to outsource some of this development to StartupForStartups or a similar company? Do you think this model will work? Let us know in the comments section below.
It’s the middle of the night, and your prepaid phone runs out of credits, and you need to make a call urgently. Don’t you wish that you could re-charge your prepaid mobile over the internet? Pune-based startup ApnaBill allows you to do just that. Fire up a browser, select your operator (they have partnerships with all major service providers), pay from your bank account or by credit card, and receive an SMS/e-mail with the recharge PIN. Done. They have extended this model to satellite TV (TataSky, Dish), with more such coming out of the pipeline.
PuneTech interviewed co-founder and lead developer Mayank Jain where he talks about various things, from technical challenges (does your hosting provider have an upper limit on number of emails you can send out per day?), to unexpected problems that will slow down your startup (PAN card!), and advice for other budding entrepreneurs (start the paperwork for registration/bank accounts as soon as possible).
On to the interview.
Overview of ApnaBill:
Simply put, ApnaBill.com is a online service for facilitating Prepaid and Postpaid Utility Bill payments.
Available now, are Prepaid utility bill payments like prepaid mobile recharge and prepaid vouchers for Tata Sky, World Phone, Dish TV etc.
Organizationally, ApnaBill.com is an offshoot of Four Fractions. It aims at being the single point of contact between service providers and customers, thereby minimizing transactional costs. The benefit of this is directly passed onto our customers as we do NOT charge any transaction costs from our customers. Its an ApnaBill.com policy and would be applicable to all of our product line.
Apart from regular Utility Bill Payments, we are also exploring some seemingly blue ocean verticals which have not been targeted by the online bill payment sector – yet.
We have managed to make our business model such that despite absorbing the transactional cost, we’ll be able to make profits. They would definitely be low but the sheer amount of transactions (which we would attract because of no-transaction-charge policy) would put our figures in positive direction.
Moreover, profit generated from transactions is just one revenue source. Once we have a good traction, our advertisement revenue sources would also become viable.
We are definitely looking at a long term brand building.
Technical Challenges – Overview
Contrary to popular belief, technology is generally the simplest ingredient in a startup – specially because the startup can generally excercise full control over how it is used and deployed. And with increasingly cheaper computing resources, this space is becoming even more smoother.
However, following problems were a real challenges which we faced and solved.
Being a web 2.0 startup, we faced some major cross browser issues.
Minimizing client side internet connectivity and page display speeds
Thankfully, ApnaBill.com is running Ruby on Rails under the hood – and all the solutions we designed, just got fit into the right grooves.
Technical Challenges – Details
Ruby on Rails a one of the best framework a web developer can ask for. All the solutions to the above problems just come bundled with it.
To overcome mail capping limits for shared hosts, we devised our own modules which would schedule mails if they were crossing the mail caps. However, we later discovered that there’s a great Ruby gem – ar_mailer to do just that. We are planning to make the shift.
If you see our homepage, no JS loads up when the page is loading up. However, once the page is loaded, we initiate a delayed JS load which renders our news feed in the end.
Database versioning is an inbuilt feature in Rails. We can effectively revert back to any version of ApnaBill.com (in terms of functionality) with standard Rails framework procedures.
Integrating various vendors and services was visibly the biggest challenge we overcame during the (almost) 9 months development cycle of ApnaBill.com.
Getting the organization up and running was another big challenge. The paperwork takes a lot of valuable time – which if visioned properly, can be minimized to a manageable amount.
Payment Gateways are a big mess for startups. They are costly, demand huge chunks of money for security deposits and have very high transaction costs. Those who are cheap – lack even the basic courtesy and quality of service. Sooner or later, the backbone of your business becomes the single most painful factor in your business process – specially when you have no control over its functioning.
Thankfully, there are a few payment gateways which are above all of this. We hope to make an announcement soon.
The process of founding ApnaBill:
When and how did you get the idea of founding ApnaBill? How long before you finally decided to take the plunge and start in earnest? What is your team like now?
In June 2007, one of the founding members of Four Fractions saw a friend of his, cribbing about how he cannot recharge his prepaid mobile phone from the comforts of his home. He had to walk about 1 km to reach the nearest local shop to get his phone connection recharged.
This idea caught the founder’s attention and he, along-with others formed Four Fractions on 20th December ’07 to launch ApnaBill.com as one of their flagship products.
ApnaBill.com was opened for public transactions on 15th June 08. The release was a birthday present to ApnaBill.com’s co-founder’s mom.
Our team is now 5 people strong, spread across New Delhi and Pune. As of now, we are self funded and are actively looking for seed funding.
What takes most of the time:
As I mentioned earlier, getting various services integrated took most of the time. If we had to just push out our own product (minus all collaborations), it would have taken us less than 3 months.
There was this funny thing that set us back by almost 1 month…
We applied for a PAN card for Four Fractions. First, our application somehow got lost in the process. Then someone in the government department managed to put down our address as 108 when it was supposed to be 10 B (8 and B are very similar looking).
None of us ever envisioned this – but it happened. We lost a precious month sorthig this issue out. And since all activities were dependent on official papers, other things like bank accounts, payment gateway intgrations etc also got pushed back. But I am glad, we sorted this out in the end. Our families supported us through this all the way.
Every process like creating Bank accounts, getting PAN cards etc are still very slow and manual in nature. If we can somehow improve on them, the ecosystem can prove very helpful for budding startups.
About the co-founders:
There are 3 CoFounders for ApnaBill.com
Sameer Jain: Sameer is the brain behind our revenue generation streams and marketing policies. He is a Post Grad from Delhi University in International Marketing.
Sandeep Kumar: Sandeep comes from billing (technical) background. With him, he has brought vast knowledge about billing processes and solid database knowhow.
Myself (Mayank Jain): I come from desktop application development background. I switched to Ruby on Rails almost 18 months ago – and since then, I am a devoted Ruby evangelist and Rails developer.
Luckily, we have a team which is just right. We have two polarizing ends – Sandeep and Sameer. One of them is constantly driving organization to minimizing costs while the other is driven towards maximizing revenue from all possible sources. I act as a glue between both of them. Together, we are constantly driving the organization forward.
About selection for proto.in:
Proto.in was the platform for which we were preparing for from almost 2 months. We had decided our launch dates in such a way that we would launch and be LIVE just in time for Proto.in.
Being recognized for your efforts is a big satisfaction.
Proto.in was also a huge learning experience. Interacting directly with our potential users gave us an insight on how they percieve ApnaBill.com and what they want out of it. We also came across some interesting revenue generation ideas when interacting with the startup veterans at Proto.
There are a lot of people who are currently doing a job somewhere, but who harbor a desire to start something on their own. Since you have already gone that route, what suggestions would you have for them?
Some tips I would like to share with my peer budding entrepreneurs…
Focus, focus and focus!
If you are an internet startup, book your domain before anything and get the right hosting partner.
Start the paperwork for firm/bank accounts registration as soon as possible.
Write down your financial/investment plan on paper before you start. Some plan is way better than a no plan!
Adopt proper development process for the tech team. With a process in place, development activities can be tracked rationally.
Get someone to manage your finances – outsourcing is a very attractive option.
The most important factor for a startup besides anything else – is to keep fighting during the adverse scenarios. Almost everything would spring into your face as a problem. But a team which can work together to find a solution for it – makes it to the end.
Just remember, more than the destination, it is the journey that would count.