Saturday, 7 May 2022

How did you start your own startup? How did you choose the idea?

Long story ahead. Grab a bucket of popcorn.

In the months of May, June, and July 2016, I was in Palo Alto, California, for my tech internship at a startup called Rubrik. My third year had just ended and Rubrik was indeed the best internship opportunity that I’d have got. I was working with their File Systems Team, working on migrating their backend database from one DBMS to another. I was working with some really smart team members and learned a lot.

However, during the internship, I realized a few things:

  1. I can’t stay away from my parents. Given that my parents won’t move to the US, it is best for me to stay in India.
  2. The learning experience at Rubrik was great and so, I thought that I should also explore starting up on my own.

My 7th semester at IIT Bombay was starting around late July 2016. I spoke with a couple of college friends, explaining my desire to start something of my own. One of them suggested that I should explore courses in DSSE (Desai Sethi School of Entrepreneurship) at IIT Bombay. IIT Bombay has such a large academic infrastructure that it is nearly impossible for anyone to know everything that the institute offers. I had spent 3 years at IIT Bombay and I had no idea that we had something like DSSE in the Institute.

I wrote to their Project Manager and the Professor in charge and expressed my desire to start a company. In spite of my being late for the enrollment date, they were kind enough to allow me to enroll in the ENT101 course - Introduction to Entrepreneurship.

When I came back to India around the end of July 2021, I started attending the ENT101 classes and I thoroughly enjoyed them. In a typical course in an engineering college, one expects slides, lectures, assignments, quizzes, and pen-paper-based exams. ENT101 was totally different. In this course, senior alums of the IITs took sessions, explaining various entrepreneurship concepts through their own entrepreneurial journey. These professors were not academic professors. They were themselves, startup founders and entrepreneurs, some of them even being billionaires themselves. They took classes to pay back to the institute.

They didn’t take any exams. The mechanism of the evaluation was to see how much a student is investing time in talking to customers, building a minimum viable product, and eventually building a startup of their own. The professors focused purely on the end outcome rather than on written exams.

I got an opportunity to listen to the success stories of industry veterans as well as young founders. One particularly striking story was of an IITB 2014 batch Alum (let’s call him Mohit). Mohit was just 3 years senior to me and had created a multi-million dollar company. I was extremely inspired to hear his story. I thought to myself - “Mohit is just 3 years senior to me. If he can create such a successful startup, why can’t I?”

An important lesson taught in the ENT101 course was that ideally, one should partner with a co-founder when starting up. Not that solo founders don’t do well, just that partnering with a co-founder makes life a little easier. I started thinking about who to partner with. A natural choice was to find someone in the friend circle. Most of my friends, including myself, came from a relatively humble background and so, convincing someone to forget about the thought of a high-paying job, and start a company, was quite difficult.

I realized that if there is someone who would not think twice before leaving the idea of a job, then that would be my friend Soham, who stayed 2 rooms away from me at Hostel 3 - yes, the same Hostel 3 that you saw in the movie Chhichhore. I had the privilege to spend 3 years of my life at Hostel 3!

I spoke with Soham and as expected, he was up for the idea. Both of us had internships from fantastic companies and both our companies had extended us pre-placement offers. This meant that we had a full 1 year of time (the 4th year of college) to experiment on various startup ideas. In fact, we had a really good situation:

  1. In the 4th year of college, no one expects you to earn money, and hence, we could experiment and fail during this time, without any external pressure.
  2. The Undergrad Project (BTP) is optional at IITB CSE and hence, we didn’t have to spend time on that.
  3. We both had pre-placement offers and so, we didn’t have to prepare for placements.
  4. We both didn’t have to go for MS or Ph.D. and so, we didn’t have to prepare for GRE or TOEFL.
  5. We had our core courses almost completed, and so, we had to take minimum courses in the final year.
  6. The institute allows taking up courses from outside CSE Department and tag them as institute electives. So, we could take up entrepreneurship courses and get the credits counted in our core CSE curriculum.

Yes, I am thankful to IITB for providing such a flexible curriculum!

Soham and I took multiple entrepreneurship courses:

  • Introduction to Entrepreneurship
  • Technology Venture Creation
  • Marketing for Entrepreneurs
  • Intellectual Property for Entrepreneurs

One important thing we learned was that startups are built around problem statements. We, engineers, tend to think that if we build a cool technology, the market will buy it. In reality, the reverse happens.

One needs to understand what the market wants, and then one should build a product (or technology) around it.

This single important lesson changed our thinking perspective and we both started looking for problem statements. One interesting problem statement that came up was that in spite of so many apps for ordering food (Swiggy, Zomato), purchasing items (Amazon, Flipkart), or ticket booking (IRCTC, MMT), parents still can’t use these apps easily and rely on their children. I personally faced this because my parents always take my help in such things.

We started validating this problem statement. We spoke with a bunch of people including our parents, friends, professors, etc. We figured out that the problem statement is quite a large one. This whole problem statement discovery exercise was a part of the course Technology Venture Creation. For the course, we started presenting this idea as the project.

We started thinking of solutions to the above problem and an idea that struck us was that we can potentially create an IVR (phone call) based mechanism where parents can simply call a standard 1800 kind of number, and talk to an intelligent voice assistant, and speak their query. The voice assistant would be powered by Natural Language Understanding (NLU) technology and would be able to help parents order food, book a cab, order from Amazon or Flipkart, and book tickets.

When we presented this idea in our course Presentation, the feedback we got was that we will have to stretch ourselves to acquire customers and it will require heavy funding. Therefore, we should consider licensing this technology to businesses that already have acquired customers. The idea sounded quite interesting to us - not only would we avoid the hassle of acquiring customers but also we will be able to monetize easily.

Another interesting learning in one of the courses (Marketing for Entrepreneurs) was that we should chase customers rather than investors. We all always hear the news around IITians getting millions of dollars in funding from investors. It is easy to get swayed away with the core focus and divert one’s attention towards raising funds. However, based on the course learning, we always stayed away from any kind of VCs or institutional funds.

Through the contacts of the professors, we started to meet some institutions to see how we can partner with them and co-create the product with them. We started converging on a single market segment - Financial Services. It seemed quite big, a possible multi-million dollar opportunity.

We met executives at some of the large financial institutions:

  1. YES Bank
  2. HDFC Bank
  3. Axis Bank

The idea was to sell before we build. Product/Technology development had to be done along with the customer so that it is more of a co-creation of something that’s valuable. The executives at these big banks were kind enough to give us feedback (positive and negative) and share non-confidential information about what they were doing, what problem statements they were looking to solve, and what solutions they already had.

This whole customer interaction exercise really changed our thinking process. We realized that if we just talk to customers and get feedback, we can build the right product extremely easily.

Our initial idea was to build an IVR (phone call) based voice assistant for enterprises. However, we realized that the 1800 number was a HUGE customer support channel for these large organizations and they didn’t really want to trust two kids of 21 years old each, on technology for such a large platform. Most explained that they were exploring chat and chatbot-based solutions that that’s where they can experiment with us and see if we are relevant for them.

One of the above banks agreed to do a pilot with us on one of their internal employee-facing mobile application where they wanted a chatbot solution wherein their employees can ask basic product-related queries. Their employee base was huge and so, new employees need to be trained on their product portfolio. If these new employees need some help, they call their managers or the back office for assistance. This large bank wanted us to automate this via a chatbot within the app.

We found this use-case interesting and started working on the pilot. However, we later realized that we were being taken for granted. When we spoke about a possible commercial engagement for the pilot, we were told that the bank expected this to be an academic project for no charge. Obviously, we were quite disappointed with that and stopped working on the project. This whole episode happened around February 2017. This was when we were still in the 8th semester of college.

Towards the end of March 2017, one of the professors introduced us to the Head of the Innovations team at SBI. He liked our concept and told us to apply for an application via their portal. We went back to the hostel room and started the application only to realize that it was mandatory to have a company incorporated. I called up one of my cousins, who’s a CA, and requested him to help us incorporate the company. SBI told us to get the application process completed before they can proceed with our evaluation.

On 21st April 2017, AllinCall Research and Solutions Private Limited was incorporated. We got our DSC (Digital Signature Certificates) and DIN (Director Identification Number). As soon as we got the company incorporated, we completed the SBI application process and went back to meet their Head of Innovations. Remember, this was a time when it took 3 - 4 weeks to get a company incorporated. Now, obviously, it is much faster - a week or so!

When we went back to the Innovations Head, he had forgotten us completely. Obviously, we were shocked because of this lost opportunity. We figured out that the person was sensible and he can’t forget us so easily and so, he must be testing our patience and persistence. We started to build rapport with his reportee to understand what’s going on. We convinced him to allow us a gate pass to come to the SBI office so that we can convince the Innovations Head.

Daily we used to travel from Powai to Belapur, 30+ kms one side. Those who stay in Mumbai would know how hot and humid the weather is during the April and May months. On top of that, we had to wear formal clothes.

In a few days of time, the Innovations Head understood that we are determined to get a business from him and we won’t leave him like this. He finally called us and told us to make a proof-of-concept (POC) of a simple chatbot that can answer loan-related queries. He told us that if we deliver well, they will launch the chatbot on the 1st of July 2017, the bank’s foundation day, and also the last year of their tech-savvy Chairperson Ms. Arundhati Bhattacharya.

We were in the sky hearing this! We were given a timeline of 2 - 3 weeks to build the POC. We came back within a week to show him the solution. He tried it and really liked it. He saw our enthusiasm and agreed to take this forward. He showed a demo of the end solution to his seniors and they all liked it. We were extremely delighted to know that the project was being taken forward.

This was around the end of May 2017. I had my joining at Rubrik on 27th June. Soham’s joining at Indeed (the job search company) was around the same time. We both realized that if SBI gives us a contract around mid-June, we will be able to focus full-time on building AllinCall. So, we started accelerating the whole process.

We started working on the final product version with the SBI team, refining the product and preparing for deployment of the Software in SBI servers. In the deployment process, we learned a lot of new things - UAT, Production, Web Server, App Server, Database Server, Secure Code Deployment, Vulnerability Assessment, Penetration Testing, Application Security, and whatnot! SBI had an Information Security Department which did a hell lot of testing on our code and pointed out some 4500 open observations. Needless to say, we were shocked to see this.

Soham was extremely passionate about cybersecurity in college and he knew a lot of these things. Within 3 days, he had closed all the 4500 observations. To date, I am surprised how he did that!

In parallel, I was working on the documentation and paperwork with the SBI team. They needed a lot of documents around our technical architecture, data flow, technology, use-case, best practices, analytics, etc. They needed a formal commercial proposal (quote) also. In parallel, the process was initiated for the Non-disclosure Agreement (NDA) and Service Level Agreement (SLA). All of these things were totally new to us. We did a lot of Google searches and picked up some of these.

In between, unfortunately, Soham’s grandmother expired and so, he had to rush to Ahmedabad for her last rites. It was a difficult period for us because effectively, half of our bandwidth was gone. In between, I had some rounds of negotiations with the SBI team. Their GM who was negotiating with us had an experience almost equal to Soham and my age combined. Needless to say, they negotiated hard on a bunch of things - pricing model, payment schedule, licensing, and the overall numbers. We didn’t know much here and so, we went with the flow.

Around 27th June, we were ready for deployment and on 1st July, as per the planned date, the solution was launched for SBI. SBI Team did a grand celebration of their Foundation day and we also got a spot. We were honored by the CIO and CTO of the State Bank Group. For us, it was a great starting point.

Getting the largest bank in the country as the first customer, was indeed a great achievement for us. SBI gave us a launchpad which we could have never got elsewhere. We got extremely good support from the SBI officials and they guided us throughout the process.

SBI issued a certificate in the name of our company, signed by their CIO.

In August 2018, 1.5 months after the SBI chatbot launch, we graduated from IIT Bombay. It was a proud moment for our parents that we were able to acquire such a large enterprise client before even graduating from college.

The Head of Innovations was kind enough to put a word to SBI Group companies and SBI Life immediately invited us for a demo. They were evaluating partners for chatbot, but a reference from SBI helped them finalize on us quickly. Today, many SBI Group companies are our clients - SBI Life Insurance, SBI Mutual Fund, SBI Cap Securities, SBI General Insurance.

I have even taken sessions with SBI Team where they wanted us to share our learnings with their young team members from the IT side.

I also got an opportunity to meet with other senior SBI officials at their PBBU (Personal Banking Business Unit) Conclave in Goa.

Later, AllinCall rebranded as Cogno AI. COVID-19 helped us grow our business and today, we are a 100+ member team, with 60+ enterprise clients including the likes of State Bank Group, Kotak Group, HDFC Group, ICICI Group, Aditya Birla Group, Bajaj Group, and many others.

Soham, for his own personal reasons, left the Company in August 2018. His exit process happened amicably and we still remain good friends - there was no reason for us to create a conflict. I respect his decisions and today, he is quite successful, heading the Technology Team at a leading Startup.

Later I partnered with Harshita, who is my current co-founder and leads our Product and Engineering Teams, while I look at the customer side of things. Harshita has played a critical role in building the product that our customers absolutely love.

At Cogno, we recently joined hands with Exotel in November 2021 where Cogno AI was acquired by Exotel. Exotel is a leader in the cloud communication space and we feel that together we can build the best Customer Experience Platform from India.

The whole ~4.5 years of the journey so far have been quite exciting and we learned a lot. We learned large enterprise customer acquisition, building an enterprise-grade product, customer success, project management, delivery and support, negotiations, recruitment, employee experience, and many other things.

We are thankful for the support of our customers, team members, mentors, advisors, and parents, without whom, this would not have been possible.

Kudos to you if you could read till here. Hope this answer helped. All the best!

2 comments:

  1. Sir your blogs are really insightful, please keep writing!! :) As a jee aspirant I read your blogs in my free time and it is very useful. Even though you wrote the jee around a decade ago, it is still very relevant today also. Thank you :)

    ReplyDelete

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