IN was born and brought up in a small town named Thrissur in Kerala, which is known to be the heartland of the state’s business acumen and home to many of the leading Malayali entrepreneurs. This small town had its own set of benefits in the form of ample free time. Part of it was because of frequent strikes in schools and colleges, but a bigger factor was the sheer lack of options to indulge oneself in usual fun and frolic. I remember I was fascinated by the world of electronics at a very young age. So, my dad decided to give me some space in a garage where I built my first model for a science exhibition at school. I won the first prize and my dad gifted me a toy car as promised by him. I was very curious to know how the car worked. So I decided to take it apart and see all its components. My mom was furious at the total loss of the new gift but my dad was amused. He probably knew what I was up to.
The first encounter
My first encounter with a computer happened at the age of fourteen when it arrived in my neighbourhood. In those days it cost about Rs 1 lakh, well beyond what a middle class family like ours could afford. Thankfully my dad, a government employee, was undergoing a computer training programme at the same time and brought home several computer-related books. I read them all one after the other. I was amazed to see how this small machine could process input of varying complexity and produce the desired output almost immediately. In no time, I was hooked to it; it was magical.
I was in the 8th standard then. My school did have a computer library but it was open only to students of class X and above. I don’t really know what he saw in me, but thanks to the library assistant who allowed me to come and see the device after evening classes without a formal permission from the Principal, I got to know the fascinating machines up close. As days passed, I had started to nurture a dream of owning a computer myself someday. As they say – ‘Man proposes, god disposes’; affordability remained a big issue.
But when money is scarce, spirits are generally abundant. My dad put forth one condition that he would buy me a computer, if I scored a distinction in my class X board exams. I doubted if I could accomplish this since I somehow wasn’t particularly passionate about doing exceedingly well in academics. On the other hand, I had every reason to give my very best and make this happen for there would be a computer at the end of it.
I, for once, put my heart and soul into the “mission” and a mix of hard work and God’s grace got me the distinction. Soon, I was the proud owner of a computer. More than the fun games and word processors, the Web excited me the most. It was almost like a genie at your service. As I started to understand the web better, I developed an intuition that the Web was going to be the future. That was the time when Web was still not very prominent in India but was exploding in Silicon Valley in the US (United States). I found only a handful of online ventures like Baazi.com (currently Ebay), and I was itching to contribute in a meaningful way towards this growth story in India.
Nature and nurture
Relatives and friends say I was truly a precocious kid. I would like to attribute some part of it to genetics, but a large part of it to my upbringing. I owe it to my parents since they never became a hurdle in my way to pursuing my dreams. At some point I realised that my parents, despite the generosity of the oceans in their hearts, just could not fund the ambitious goals I had set for myself. I had to do something to help them. I had an entrepreneurial streak which prompted me to set up a web design firm at the age of 16. I was quite inspired by the Shah Rukh starrer Swades during my class X days, and now, when I had a venture of my own, I named it ‘Swadesh Solutions’. We designed websites for local shops, schools and even temples. Thrissur was getting an online footprint faster than any other city in India!
The Kerala acumen
I will tell you something about people from my state. Like true opportunists, if we ever saw someone having the right formula for success, we would definitely see for ourselves if we can replicate the same recipe and make some money out of it. I was really impressed with the B2C model of online selling of used products through platforms like Baazi. While still at high school, the novelty and uniqueness of an idea struck me almost instantly and I went on to start an ecommerce deal website – ‘just4sale.in’ with a catchy tagline – ‘Light Price! Right deal!’ I mostly sold items to people in my friends’ circle. Meanwhile, I also purchased my first phone, but the joy of owning it was taken away when I figured out that another shop sold the exact same phone at a relatively lower price. I call it a blessing in disguise since it prompted me to include a feature on my website using which buyers could compare prices from multiple vendors before zeroing down on the final purchase decision. I also persuaded vendors to put up attractive offers and volume discounts to boost sales; a concept known as ‘second degree price discrimination’, taught in great detail at some of the premier B-schools. I read about it almost 10 years after I had successfully implemented it! I’m not trying to ridicule the significance of wealth of knowledge stored in textbooks, but I firmly believe that true learning can only happen at work. It was precisely what Groupon did a couple of years down the line.
To support my current business, I started selling software CDs and made enough money to buy IT magazines and other computer hardware which I wanted to study in detail. I tasted profit for the first time and understood how operating margin could play a critical role in ensuring sustainability of any business. It was even more relevant in Indian context, where sources of external funding were limited. I was practically unaware of Angel Investors or Venture Capitalists in those days, so had to pool in money from relatives and friends for my business but that also meant greater accountability. In fact, I couldn’t openly discuss my enterprising plans with my parents for obvious consequences but they had also accepted by the time that I was on to something else, something big. And I repeat this time and again; had it not been for their support, I wouldn’t have come this far.
I cracked a good number of deals that year and was featured in many small magazines. However, many of my friends relocated to different cities to pursue college education after class XII and I was left on my own. Unfortunately, I had to shut down the business. I remember how I ended up getting better rank for medical entrance than that in engineering and people around me started to convince me to join a medical college for the simple reason that it had better prospects in terms of a fat paycheck and a beautiful bride. My idea of a good career was in complete contrast with the popular consensus. To me, it meant something I could look back at and be proud of. Finally, better sense prevailed and I had the courage to follow my heart. Then happened Lal Bahadur Shastri College of Kannur University at Kasargod. It was lots of fun but honestly, I was a bit apprehensive to start with. It was the first time I was going to stay outside my home. It later turned out to be a great opportunity to interact with students from different parts of the country.
SMS Gyaan – connecting the unconnected
On one of those days, I was sitting with my friends discussing how to impress girls. A friend of mine opined that there is this powerful thing called ‘Google’ which supposedly has solution to all our life’s problems and could potentially play ‘Love Guru’ for us. I used to have a Nokia 1100 phone those days which didn’t facilitate internet access like that of modern-day smart phones. I was saddened for a while before the eureka moment arrived. I realised I wasn’t the only one feeling so helpless about it, there were 900 million Indians who shared the same anguish and pain.
I connected more with my backbencher friends than anybody else. What I liked most about my college was that it had what I secretly wished for – free wi-fi connectivity throughout. I took an education loan, bought a laptop and started spending more time with it. My computer teacher spotted where my genuine interest lay, and offered me a challenging project. I revamped my college website completely and was an overnight star in the college campus. I was looking for more like-minded people who believed in the power of technology to change the world. Our Dean was generous enough to provide us some space in the college building so that we could start working on our idea. I built and started to manage a small team of web designers. I had to learn and train myself on skills of delegation and team management over next couple of months.
The four of us – Abhinav Sree, Ashwin Nath and Mohammad Hisamuddin joined in – to get it done. Abhinav and Ashwin were my classmates but Hisham was a year senior to me and we had a few things in common – we didn’t mind skipping classes and were all big time enthusiasts of internet. In our team, Hisham had great ideas, ‘Wikipedia over SMS’ was in fact one of his final year projects and I, on the other hand, was an opportunist Mallu to the core. The biggest hurdle was that neither of us was a coding expert. Back then, we had no vision of a multi-million dollar company, all we were trying to do was to solve an intriguing problem at hand. We could clearly see the growing addiction for texting among youngsters and wanted to seize the opportunity it presented. Eventually, Ashwin helped us build the prototype within a week or so and thus formed the union of four of us who later co-founded Innoz in 2008. Its mission is to connect the unconnected. We want everyone to access information from the web, without the hassles of internet connectivity. Innoz SMS Search has processed over 1.3 billion queries from over hundreds of millions of users around the world.
We raised about two lakh rupees from our family and other acquaintances to kickstart our journey. We wanted to ensure that our operational cost beyond travel would be minimal. It helped that we were still operating from college campus and didn’t have to incur any additional rent or food expenses. Being student entrepreneurs helped us get adequate media attention which turned out crucial over next couple of years. We continued to upgrade our product as we strived to answer user queries of all sorts. It was in Feb 2009 during the 6th semester of college that I ended up getting a call from IIMA’s (Indian Insitute of Management – Ahmedabad) incubation programme ‘i-Accelerator’ to fund our project. We had to decide between final exams and the train to Ahmedabad and trust me, we had realised that we had learnt lot more than our peer groups in college, and had complete clarity that we
only wanted to do things which we liked. Over the next couple of months, we also received additional funding from Technopark but now the focus was to find ways to monetise the idea of ‘SMS Gyaan’. I knew I had a great idea but had little clue how to make a great business out of it. I dropped out of college and next went to Gurgaon, the telecom valley of the country.
I don’t think it was luck. It was sheer persistence.
Hitting the big league
I went to Airtel office where I wasn’t initially allowed to meet senior officials. A large number of people thought that at my age, it was next to impossible to have a great business idea and they wrote me off even before I had pitched my story. I was aghast at the prevailing injustice in the world but more importantly, I never discounted my own ability to sell things and it kept me going. I sat mostly at the reception desk and the coffee shop within the Airtel office and pitched my idea to anyone and everyone who had the company I-card. Fortunately, one fine day I managed to convince an executive named Nitin Mishra who asked me to meet him in his office the next day. Nitin was the head of new product division at Airtel and was keen to launch the service at the earliest possible. Seeds of disruptive innovation were being sowed and I, for once, was smiling after weeks and months of despair.
Airtel helped us scale the product big time. It also got much easier to convince other telecom providers. In hindsight, I find it amazing how things started to look all so simple. We crossed one billion queries last year and have reached out to more than 200 million users. Apart from our footprint in the US, we operate in more than 10 emerging countries including in Africa and South-East Asia. In fact, we ourselves never thought that the product would go viral globally but it just so happened that people liked the product and there was a pressing need. Going forward, it will be increasingly important to have the right focus. Rather than becoming a search engine competitor to Google, we rather plan to invest heavily in content discovery platform which has been our USP. When good things come, they come in a pack. We won several awards one after the other. We were selected among the Red Herring Global 100 and Asia 100 winner for 2010 as being among the most promising private ventures from around the world. NASSCOM (National Association of Software and Services Companies) named us among Top 8 Emerging Companies in India for 2011. I was also nominated in the MIT Technology Review’s under-35 outstanding innovators’ list. ‘Wired’ magazine named us “Offline Internet” and Limca Book stated that we are the largest offline search in the world.
SMS queries – a peek into how India thinks
We get all kinds of questions on SMS Gyaan which we later rebranded as 55444. Why is Angry bird angry? Why is Apple half bitten? Why is a hot dog called so when it has nothing to do with a dog? We tried to come up with answers like “angry birds are so angry because a group of green pigs stole their eggs.”
There were numerous such funny queries but what gives me real satisfaction is the fact that a large number of women were using it as their private companion and could confide in a technology when they were sceptical of reaching out to other people out of shame or distrust.
Once the Gyan engine gets a query from a mobile user, an algorithm spiders the world wide web for related information, zeroes in on the most relevant inputs, and then shortens it to be sent to a mobile. Various categories are currently available such as encyclopaedia, dictionary, acronym, live cricket scores, movie reviews, book reviews, weather alerts, stock market, gadgets prices and calorie meter. Other recent additions include localised searches, job search and even a health service over the phone. Every time a user texts a query to ‘55444’, Innoz’s software searches through its own files and vast internet databases to pull out appropriate answers. Responses are sent within seconds. An “unlimited questions” subscription costs only `30 and mobile service providers share with it their revenues.
Those seeking replies are mainly 18 to 25 years old middleclass Indians from small towns and cities who do not have internet access. And their questions present a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the young, ‘middle’ India. From Satara in the west and Imphal in the east to Rajahmundry in the south, love and romance, education and career, Bollywood and cricket are what fascinate India’s small-town youth the most. Others want to know how to get rid of dandruff, to become rich, to forget someone, or to gain height. The queries are in Hinglish (a mix of Hindi & English), Kanglish (Kannada & English), Tanglish (Tamil & English) and a host of regional variations. The company plans to add translators and voice-based on demand to the services. Apart from the US, Innoz operates in more than 10 emerging countries including those in Africa and southeast Asia. Developing countries have 70% mobile cellular penetration but only 21% internet penetration. Providing access to internet in a convenient and affordable manner has helped the company become popular.
Innoz hosted a hackathon in 2012 that allowed participants to interact with developers who had ideas for apps on the SMS platform. During the 36-hour hackathon, about 150 technologists wrote codes for various apps using the platform.
I have enough ideas in mobile technology space as of now but if I ever feel there isn’t enough scope to innovate, I will quickly move on to something else. But our bottomline is – once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur. When I look back at some of my childhood initiatives, I think some of those ventures didn’t quite flourish simple because I was way ahead of time. But it is not such a bad thing after all. Talk of joys of being an entrepreneur and you will lose count. Think of the delight at being the largest job creator for the same college campus that one went to, and it can’t get any better.
Looking beyond cricket and Bollywood
But if you ask me what India needs most at this date, I have a simple answer that the country needs heroes and idols beyond cricket and Bollywood. We need more entrepreneurial and research-oriented success stories to come out in media so that the young generation starts to aspire and idolise them. I often tell people that one can take chances when one is young so that one has good number of stories to tell when old. I don’t recommend everyone to start their own ventures but I know in my heart that technology definitely is going to rule the world and coding literacy is going to be as important as literacy defined in traditional jargon. I also want to do my bit to give back to my roots. With potent support from Kerala government, I have set a target of incubating more than 1000 start-ups by college graduates in the next ten years at India’s first Public Private Partnership model technology business incubator spread over one lakh sq ft at the Indian Telecom Innovation Hub – Technology Business Incubator (ITIH-TBI or Startup Village) in Cochin.
I also launched an initiative called 100 Rockstars to support student ideas and technology projects with incubation and funding. I am an influencer at Startup Corridor which identifies a dozen or so true entrepreneurs in India and fly them as a group to visit Silicon Valley for two weeks. The ‘Corridor’ is the brain child of venture capitalist Asha Jadeja Motwani, widow of late Stanford professor Rajeev Motwani, who was a mentor to the likes of Larry Page and Sergei Brin, and key architect of the algorithms that powers Google. Nothing would make me happier than to see more Indians across different states creating jobs than working for giant MNCs. We have long been an outsourcing hub, now is the time we need to lead the technology revolution right from the front.
To conclude, I must acknowledge that lot of things did go my way. Right from supportive parents, the helpful librarian, an understanding professor, the big-hearted college dean, genuine friends to receptive customers, it looks like a dream run but there were times, I got stuck too. But I kept going with the belief that things can only get better in life. And most certainly, they did.