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.
- Mail capping limits for shared hosting accounts.
- Minimizing client side internet connectivity and page display speeds
- Database versioning.
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?
The story described at http://www.fourfractions.com/main/our-story is very true.
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.
A big thanks to Vijay Anand and the Proto Team.
Advice for other potential entrepreneurs:
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.