Man survives tough times and, thereafter carves a way to a new beginning after the end. When the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, a number of dotcom companies had to shut down operations. Yet mans thrust for new beginnings can be cited as the reason why those
It is all about what a person draws from an inspiration and what clicks and takes off. Indisputably, success comes early in the case of web entrepreneurs as their online venture makes their concept easily accessible. Of course, it is no magic, but pure dedication that pays off. We salute the entrepreneurial drive of the following people who ventured into the online space for a typical start-up business. The thought of failing in their venture did not occur; rather they were determined to go on with the entrepreneurial errand.
Freedom of speech
“I always wanted to start something on my own. When I came back from the US in 2000, I found that lots of people were using internet in India. I thought if I wanted to start something on my own why not in India,” reminiscences Faisal Farooqui, Founder-CEO, MouthShut.com. Starting something of this sort was cooking in Farooqui’s mind right from the days when he was doing a course in the US wherein they used to rate their peers’ articles and the score would depend only on how the peers rated one another. Farooqui realised that their feedback helped him improve his articles and thought that he could probably give the companies feedback to improve their products and services by launching MouthShut.com.
MouthShut was started with a single mission to provide consumers in India a platform to express their views and opinions with reference to the products and services, giving them an opportunity to post their grievances online. MouthShut.com provides a complete package to its corporate clients including corporate blog account, expertise and consulting. They can send across messages to each other using their corporate accounts and resolve the issue with the assistance of the expert appointed by MouthShut, who provides them consulting to improve product and services. Once the company resolves the query, MouthShut also puts a stamp on the query to indicate that the query has been resolved. Talking about how corporates take their services, Farooqui says, “A majority of the companies respect our opinions and appreciate whatever is written by the consumers. They get in touch with the people who have written reviews on MouthShut.” Moreover, 60 per cent of the reviews being positive act as a marketing tool for the companies. Some of the companies that work with MouthShut include Club Mahindra, Eureka Forbes, Karrox Technologies, and Cox and Kings. On the other hand, there are some other companies which are closely monitoring MouthShut but are not registered users. But based on the consumers’ responses they resolve the issues on their own.
Starting typically in a garage with just eight people and a few computers, MouthShut.com today has 32 full time employees, apart from a good number of freelancers and consultants, and over 30 lakh users across India. MouthShut charges its corporate clients, but not the consumers who post their queries on the site. Besides that, MouthShut generates revenue from in-house advertisement sales and Google advertisement sales.
Ferns ‘N’ Petals
Flowers at a click
In order to penetrate deeper into the space it had pioneered, Ferns N Petals (FNP) launched www.fnp.in in 2002. Opening its first outlet in 1999, FNP today has 87 outlets all over India. The online venture changed the way flowers were sent by introducing the concept of ‘Same Day Delivery’, wherein any order booked before 14:00 hours IST is delivered on the same day across 100 cities in the country, and the concept caught on. The company invested Rs 20 lakh to launch the website, but reached profitability within the very first month of operations.
FNP’s online delivery services offer a huge range of products ranging from fresh flowers and artificial flowers to cakes and chocolates to combo gifts and sweets, etc. The customer can place order for flowers or gifts available on the website, and the company delivers it to the desired state or country on behalf of the customer within the time frame specified by the customer. FNP’s huge offline presence further facilitates the delivery and quality of its products.
Initially, the technology available was pretty restrictive and did not allow FNP to provide many options to customers. On the other hand, florists across the country were not exposed to online accepting of flowers. Explaining how they tackled this hurdle, Vikaas Gutgutia, Founder, fnp.in says, “We went to more than 50 cities across the country, short listed the perfect florist of that city and then financed a computer for him and initiated the process of integrating all our delivery partners in the online world.”
Hope in despair
Phanindra Sama, one of the three BITS- Pilani alumni who founded redBus.in wanted to go home to celebrate Diwali with his family but had to cancel it as the travel agent told him that all the tickets were sold due to the festive season. Anybody else would have sat dejected, but an entrepreneur seeks opportunity even in dejection.
redBus.in was started two and a half years back as an endeavour towards organising the bus ticketing market that existed since ages but lacked standardisation. It provided customers the convenience of booking bus tickets online and also, the ability to choose the seats and booking return tickets at a standard fare. Starting with less than Rs 5 lakh from their own savings, redBus.in received funding from seed fund, owing to its association with The Indus Entrepreneurs who chose to be its mentors and played a strategic role in making redBus.in, a consumer-centric brand. Today, redBus has presence in seven locations covering South, West and North India, which is 80 per cent of the organised private bus ticketing market in India. It has tied up with 400 bus operators in 15 states covering around 3,000 locations. Besides its online operations, redBus plans to set up offline centres, taking the franchise route.
redBus.in integrates all the bus operators on one hand and gets associated with various distribution partners on the other, besides selling bus tickets on its own portal. It empowers travel agencies like Yatra.com and Makemytrip.com for bus ticketing. Working with different distribution partners such as Done Card, Sify, ItzCash, Subhiksha and Oxycash, Redbus.in today has presence in 75,000 outlets.
redBus.in provides software to bus operators through which they can organise their inventory better and manage to have a wider and transparent distribution. The software also helps them in sending any information (adding a new bus, revising the bus fare or cancelling the bus) to all its agents within macro seconds by virtue of technology, saving time and effort that used to go in calling up each and every agent. Moreover, redBus charges the operators an opex (operating expenses) and not capex (capital expenditure), which means that they need to pay only if they use its services and have the liberty to discontinue in case they don’t find it useful.
The travel agent also gets benefited by the software, as all the information is now displayed on his computer screen. Besides that, he doubles every transaction by booking the return ticket as well, which was not possible earlier.
With an idea to provide website hosting services to clients abroad, Allwin Agnel, Founder, PagalGuy.com co-founded Neutral Web, teaming up with his childhood friend, and soon they had clients from over 30 countries, hosting over 7,000 websites on its servers. Just around that time, while looking for information on MBA schools, Agnel realised that there wasn’t any site or publication in India on business schools with a student's perspective. “I couldn't resist filling the gap up with pagalguy.com, which today is India's largest website for people looking for information on MBA,” says Agnel proudly.
Neutral Web was more of a ‘start it and figure it out later’ style of operating. Agnel says, “My market research was limited to understanding how there was a need for quality web hosting at affordable prices which I achieved by talking to people and browsing international web hosting communities online to understand what were the biggest problems faced by clients and how we could work around them.”
Neutral Web and pagalguy.com, both were started at around the same time-frame. pagalguy.com provides a platform to interact with lakhs of MBA aspirants, besides giving free access to loads of information. In the beginning, Neutral Web faced some technical problems as it was not possible to keep the website up 100 per cent all the time. At times, it would have downtime even for as simple a reason as a power outage at the data centre which held its servers. “We soon learnt that it helped to keep our servers distributed across geographies to ensure better uptime. Since we were fairly young and inexperienced, we just learnt fast and implemented better systems in place. But it was thrilling to work on technology that very few other than us worked on,” recalls Agnel.
pagalguy.com ran as a hobby from 2002 to 2006, and started off as a company in 2006 and posted profit in the same year. Today, it is visited by over half a million people in a month. pagalguy.com is looking at venturing into other educational verticals as well, in the near future.
Finding a good book to read is like experiencing paradise for book lovers, but this paradise is often denied to them. The reason may be any—non availability of good titles in the library, geographical distance, limited duration of keeping a book, high cost of book, lack of time and so on. Librarywala.com is an effort to regain that paradise by fighting back that ‘no book syndrome’ which the four entrepreneurs who started it witnessed during their college days.
Currently, Librarywala is present in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Pune. The concept of Librarywala is strongly founded on three Cs, namely cost, convenience and collection. Its customers can choose from 8,500+ titles comprising of classics to new releases, by looking at the online list and ordering a book of their interest and having it at their doorstep with no pickup or delivery charges. It offers different plans for registration starting from Rs 139 per month depending upon the number of books and the time period. Users have the advantage of keeping the books as long as they wish, without worrying about any late fee. It offers an additional facility, whereby, the users can request any particular title they wish to read but is not available in the list, by filling its ‘Request – A – Book’ option and Librarywala purchases that book within a week’s time.
Talking about the market research that they did before launching Librarywala.com, Hiten Turakhia, MD, Librarywala.com says, “We used to stand outside book shops and libraries and ask readers several questions in relation to readers’ reading habits and the difficulties they used to face in dealing with local libraries or book shops and based on their feedback, we tried to provide them solutions.” However, the beginning was not that smooth. Catering to the needs of the diverse readers was a Herculean task. Finding staff with a right mindset was another hurdle which could only be overcome by implementing a thorough training programme. Open communication and the invitation to visit the huge physical library helped them in winning the trust of people.
Librarywala took in an investment of Rs 65 lakh, primarily spent in setting up the huge library and is expected to reach break even by 2010. The company aims to spread these services to other cities as well. With increasing mobile penetration and usage, its upcoming mobile platform will remove the current requirement of being connected to ‘www’ (the World Wide Web).
Software as service
In an endeavour to deliver software as a service just like electricity, water or mobile connections, a2zapps.com was launched in May 2008. a2zapps.com has developed a software to provide a platform to deliver a2z software needs of the SMEs across a2z sectors over the internet. An SME can simply subscribe to a2zapps.com instead of having to buy software and install it in-house and then have more IT resources to maintain the servers and the database.
The various sectors it caters to at present include education, health, hospitality, services, manufacturing and NGOs. Some of its clients include Delhi Business School and Mahan Training Institute. Talking about how the SMEs are realising the importance of their concept, Kantanu Kundu, Founder, a2zapps.com says, “Mahan Training Institute wanted to install the software in-house but they cancelled it as it would have cost them a lot of money in setting up a server and maintaining the same. So they, instead, appointed us to do the job.”
a2zapps.com helped Mahan Training Institute to integrate five of its franchisees with the head office, besides integrating all the internal processes. The biggest advantage of providing software as a service and not as a product is that the clients need to pay Rs 1,200-1,500 per month and they can discontinue if they don’t like the service.
Coming back from the US, Kundu too found hurdles like lack of free environment and finding the right place to start. But the biggest trouble was that people did not understand the concept of software as a service and considered it just as another consulting company. a2zapps.com had to create awareness among the consumers to make them understand their concept. They went to schools and colleges as guest speakers and made cold calls, besides doing online marketing and city tours to educate people about a2zapps.com.
Shooting for success
“We worked part time from our apartment, keeping our day job to fund the initial days. Starting as a bootstrap company, we wanted to keep the cost low and get into the market as early as possible. Once we built the basic version of the website, we didn’t wait to add lots of features, rather we took it live to test the market,” says Manish Agarwal, Co-founder, Picsquare.com, one of the two IIT Bombay guys who started Picsquare.com. While brainstorming about different ideas for start-up, they realised that there are lots of Indians abroad who would like to remain connected with their loved ones in India, and share their precious moments by sending photographs. But they don’t have any convenient medium to do so. That’s what triggered the thought of starting Picsquare.com.
Picsquare started as a simple photo printing website, but now has a portfolio of products that can be customised as per users’ designs. It provides photo related services like photo hosting, sharing and printing. Users can also order customised products like mugs, T-shirts, calendars, photo books, mouse pads, etc. All these products can be ordered from anywhere in world and delivered anywhere in India. Picsquare’s target customers include Indians staying abroad having friends or family in India, and local Indians having access to the internet.
Being inexperienced and having no business background posed challenges before the young techies. However, they tried to overcome this by creating an advisory board with experts from domains like business and technology, which helped them in making initial strategies like launching, pricing, marketing, etc. Picsquare gets majority of traffic through word of mouth. However, it is looking at a couple of business tie-ups to reach new users besides carrying out online marketing activities.
In this fast-growing electronics age, the consumer can, today, be tapped more easily than before via the internet, due to its wider appeal and lesser time for data flow. With Indians becoming more and more tech savvy, web entrepreneurs have all the more reason to succeed. Simultaneously, entrepreneurs should recognise the evolving opportunities in this sector and cater to this area rather than plunging into it just to quench their entrepreneurial zeal. Expenses should be limited and investment should be more on people and technology that pays in the long run. Nothing, possibly, can match the explosive growth of companies that rely on the web for traction and scale. It is, therefore, time to understand the growth factors and have a business model that enables you to scale not just linearly but multi-dimensionally.