If you’ve been paying attention, you no doubt have seen the newspaper articles about the fact that Pune Traffic Police have been using BlackBerrys to instantly look up information about traffic offenders via the internet. This project has been done by a small Pune startup called Omni-Bridge, and a few months back, PuneTech caught up with founders Amit Shitole and Pritam Hasabnis and found that they have a story that many other tech startups will find interesting.
Like many other tech startups in Pune, Omni-Bridge is a startup that wants to really have their own products, but since that takes a lot of time and investment, they started off doing services in their area of expertise, and slowly started using the revenues from services to fund their product business. Their core expertise is in building mobile apps (mainly BlackBerry, and Symbian, but now branching into Android and iPhone too) for their customers (which are other product companies). They are now building their own mobile apps to market and sell using AppStores/marketplaces.
This is a product developed by Omni-Bridge Systems which essentially involves digitization of vehicle & license holder’s data, traffic police records and putting them on a server so that it’s accessible from internet, and then building a BlackBerry app that can access the server from anywhere. The idea is that each officer will carry a BlackBerry with him/her and when booking someone for a traffic violation uses the BlackBerry it to instantly look up the records to see if the offender has committed any traffic violations in the past.
Usually, when I see newspaper reports that giddily announce the use of some fancy technology by some government body in India, I am very sceptical. My general impression is that these are usually projects that somebody is using to get visibility or to appear cool, but when you really check, you’ll find that nobody is really using the system.
Due to this scepticism, I approached a few traffic constables and officers (at different times and places) and asked them about Trafficop system. I was surprised (and happy) to find out that:
- The system is actually being used on a day-to-day basis,
- The rank-and-file are actually happy with the system, and even impressed with it,
- The system has been useful in actually catching criminals – once constable told me about how a routine traffic violation stop resulted in them finding out that the vehicle was wanted in connection with a robbery from a few years ago.
Everything hasn’t gone according to plan. Not enough BlackBerrys were procured to give one to every officer, but that hasn’t stopped them from using the system. Those who don’t have BlackBerrys still go and enter all the information into the system at the end of the day when they get to the office.
How to approach a government body as a customer
I asked Omni-Bridge whether it was easy or difficult to deal with the traffic police department, and how did they even approach them. There I found another interesting story that would be instructive to Pune Start-ups.
Omni-Bridge did not approach the Traffic Police directly. Instead they first went to the Science and Technology Park (STP). STP is a central government body, housed in University of Pune, whose mission is to help out science and technology start-ups that can help India in some way. (We will write a more detailed article about STP, hopefully sometime soon.)
So, STP helped Omni-Bridge approach Pune Traffic Police. And one of the advantages of working with STP is that since STP is a government body, other government bodies trust it more than if a start-up were to directly approach them. In this respect, Omni-Bridge found their relationship with STP very helpful.
As for actually working with the traffic police department, they found that the officials there were quite helpful, and worked with them to define and fine-tune the product. Specifically, they found, DCP Manoj Patil and PI Surendranath Deshmukh to be knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the whole process.
I think the takeaway message for Pune start-ups is that they shouldn’t shy away from considering government bodies as customers, and they should approach the STP for help.
Right now Trafficop is being used in Pune, and a subset of their software is being used in Bangalore. After the success of the Pune program, Omni-Bridge hopes to be able to convince a bunch of other cities to go for it.
About balancing services and products
Many start-ups have the idea of using services to bootstrap their product businesses, and I have not seen too many successful examples of that model. Persistent, which did have hopes of doing this has not managed to pull this off so far. GSLab, after 5 years of doing services, is now in the market with their own product kPoint – whether they’ll succeed remains to be seen. The biggest success in ootstrapping a product company through a services company in Pune is one that most Punekars don’t really know about – Kenati. Kenati was founded as a network software services company about 10 years ago and after 2/3 years of doing that they switched over to their own products (in the home networking space). Kenati was acquired by 2Wire a couple of years back.
So, coming back to the point, I wondered how has Omni-Bridge’s experience been in this regard? Last year Omni-Bridge reached a stage where their services business could fund their own products, and they do have a few products (mobile apps) in addition to Trafficop. I asked MD Amit Shitole what advice he would give to other start-ups who are planning on doing this and he said that his biggest learning was that the most important aspect that needs to be managed is the cash-flow. The founders need to sit and very carefully figure out how much cash is needed on a month-to-month basis to keep the product business running, and then to figure out where that money is going to come from – on a regular, sustainable basis. The product business cannot really be put on a “pause” once it is started, and becomes a permanent cash-flow sink, so this calculation needs to be tackled upfront.
Co-founders Amit Shitole and Pritam Hasabnis, have indicated that they would be happy to provide guidance to early-stage first-time entrepreneurs who find themselves in a situation similar to what Omni-Bridge was in. You can get in touch with them via their website.