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Twelve Years of Indian Startups – Part I

March 11th 2019 marked the twelfth anniversary of the day I landed in New Delhi with my family with the intention of starting a company. It was a complicated, difficult, enlightening, fun journey and I thought it would be nice to share some details of how I decided to move to India, the challenges I faced, the failures I dealt with and all of the different adventures I had over the last twelve years.

I had been pretty lucky having gotten a job at JP Morgan & Co right out of college and two years later, landing a highly coveted job at Long-Term Capital Management which then turned into being one of the founding employees at GlobeOp Financial Services (a fintech startup that wasn’t called that in 1999, which went public in 2007 and was eventually acquired by SS&C in 2007).

After leaving GlobeOp in late 2004, a friend of mine from high school and I started working on our first tech startup. It was a social network before social networks or social media became a thing. My friend and I both weren’t developers but we started coding away furiously in Perl to get the first version of the application out the door. Unfortunately, we never actually launched the network. With LinkedIn and Facebook gaining ground rapidly, we really weren’t sure how just the two of us could keep up. We both wound up getting new jobs but continued working on this idea at nights and on weekends.

Trust me, this is incredibly embarrassing ( a la Reid Hoffman) but here are some screens circa 2005:

I think we finally stopped all further development of the project around the end of 2005 but we open sourced all of the code. While working on this project, I developed an insatiable appetite for all things tech entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much happening in NYC in 2005. I became an avid listener of Podcasts in 2005 and 2006 (specifically tech podcasts like John Furrier’s and Greg Gallant’s Venture Voice). Between TechCrunch and these podcasts, I had the entrepreneurial itch – again. I just needed to figure out how to scratch that itch. 

I began thinking of my problem. I loved listening to podcasts about tech entrepreneurship. However, this was before Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Spotify, Google Podcasts, etc. The only way to find podcasts was using Google. Unfortunately, Google didn’t index and make audio very searchable.

The Problem: Podcasts are hard to find

The Solution: Offer podcasters a service which will transcribe their podcasts for them and allow them to post the text on their blog/website with the podcast audio in an RSS feed.

I left the job I was at in middle of 2006 and started working on learning about the transcription industry. I found out that medical transcription was a huge business and a lot of it was run out of India. I started investigating and talking to companies that ran transcription businesses as well as offshore “development” shops that I could work with to build out an MVP for a marketplace. The solution above would be a reverse auction platform where podcasters can specify the length of their audio and put out an amount they would be ready to pay to have that transcribed. Transcribers in India, the Philippines and other places would be notified of these projects and could come in and bid on them. Payment would be helped in escrow by us and upon completion of a project, payment would be released to the transcriber and of course, both sides could rate the other (much like eLance, upwork, etc.)

As I started talking to these offshore development shops, I began realizing that most of them were a couple of friends moonlighting. I tried out a couple of them with very small work and was thoroughly annoyed but not surprised when things weren’t done. Notice, I never said I spoke to any actual podcasters.

I decided to take a trip to India in late 2006 and meet some dev shops in person as well as attend some conferences. The first entrepreneur in India I met was Amit Ranjan, author of Webyantra and co-founder of Uzanto (which eventually became Slideshare). I went to TieCon Delhi and a few other conferences but one thing really stuck out while I was in India. Every one of my relatives kept complaining about how they couldn’t find domestic help – a nanny, a cleaning person, a cook, a chauffeur, etc. I didn’t really know anyone in India other than relatives but as I was meeting people I started asking more questions about domestic help. I started seeing a pattern. It’s hard to find good help. It’s hard to retain help. It’s a word of mouth business, e.g. your cousin can ask their driver if he knows of a good driver and he will send someone to you (of course, your cousin’s driver will get a cut for helping him get a job).

It’s hard to find digital pictures from the pre-iPhone/smartphone days

I thought, this whole situation really could lend itself to a reverse auction platform so instead of focusing on transcribing podcasts, why not create impact by helping people to get jobs. With this idea and this alone, I convinced my wife that we should move to India and I should start a business to do exactly this.

More to come in Part II

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Building Facebook for India is a Waste of Time

Photo by Pankaj Jain. All Rights Reserved.This post originally appeared on CitizenTekk.

In a country of almost 1.3 billion people, mid-20th century infrastructure, rampant corruption, over 400 million people below the international poverty line, roughly another 400 million people who are considered middle class and one of the youngest populations on the planet building the next Facebook isn’t exciting. What is exciting? Solving problems for over 800 million people who don’t have access to smartphones, tablets or computers. The real opportunities for smart, savvy entrepreneurs is to solve the problems plaguing them on a daily basis. There really is no shortage or problems, big or small.

A SMS based service that brings “mandi” (market) prices directly to a farmer allows the farmer to know exactly how much his produce will get him at a market in Mumbai, Delhi, Indore, Kolkata, etc. In 2009, Thompson Reuters was making over a million dollars a year by providing the service to farmers in only three states in India. In many cases, information about current market prices has made farmers better able to negotiate fair prices with middlemen, sometimes tripling the amount of money that goes to the farmer.

Every hear of “star dialing”? Chances are that if you live in the US, you haven’t. In India, on my mobile phone, I can dial *123# and I will get my current balance pop up on an iPhone just as easily as a Nokia 1100 feature phone. The best part is that “star dialing” doesn’t cost the caller anything. No call ever gets terminated. Well, can you imagine building a banking solution on top of this for people who don’t have access to a bank? Eko Financial, based in New Delhi, has done exactly that. For millions of people who don’t have access to a bank or millions who need to send money back home to their family in a small village can do so quickly and easily by going to a local bodega (we call them “kirana” stores in India) and give cash to the store owner who enters a sequence of numbers to authenticate with the service and transmit the cash to the destination account. All of this is done in minutes and payments can be tiny or relatively large.

Imagine you lived in a rural area with no terrestrial Internet connection, no 3G, no 2G, nothing. You had a mobile phone to communicate with the world via voice and SMS. Now imagine you could search the web simply by sending an SMS to 55444 or you can find the Rotten Tomatoes ratings for a movie playing over the air. You can join IRC style chat rooms simply by using SMS. Innoz let’s you do all of these things and a lot more. It’s bringing the power of the Web and applications to people who would never have access to them. The reality is people living in remote, rural parts of India can now connect with people in cities over IRC style chat rooms, find out the seven day forecast, and even get the best price for a TV from EBay simply by sending a text message.

These are just a few examples of mobile applications that people have built in India over SMS. Add in smartphone apps that alert civic authorities to sewage problems, garbage piled up on the side of the road, illegal construction, unsafe working conditions, etc. and you have a tech savvy urban population that can use technology to improve their quality of life. The opportunity in India isn’t in building another social network or e-commerce site that sells printed kurtis online. The poor across India are hard-pressed to get access to basic resources. The middle class is very aspirational and though price sensitive, the household savings rate as a percentage of GDP fell to 7.8%, the lowest in 20 years, according to a report in Times of India. This means middle class Indians are spending and it’s been increasing.

Today, it’s possible to get a basic smartphone in India for INR 4,500 or less than USD 85. The Aakash tablet, was an ambitious project to produce a basic Internet device that can be used anywhere a mobile phone can at USD 50 subsidized to USD 35. A good deal of controversy surrounded the Aakash tablet. However, the push from the Indian government as well as manufacturers towards more affordable smartphones and tablets will create massive opportunities for entrepreneurs to provide solutions to everyday problems along with education, entertainment, sports, content, and other utilities. All going after hundreds of millions of people who are getting access to technology for the first time.

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