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Friday, 27 January 2017

This Pune-based startup offers flight tickets at 50% discount to army jawans and their families

Two engineers from the Army Institute of Technology, Pune, Varun Jain and Ravi Kumar, found that about 40,000 seats on domestic flights go vacant every day. In spite of it, more than 5,000 jawans from the Indian armed forces travel in general compartment everyday due to unavailability of seats. Their family members and veterans also face similar problems.
The udChalo team

With an aim to solve this problem, Varun and Ravi founded udChalo in 2012, a booking portal which provides discounted domestic flight tickets exclusively for the Indian armed forces, ex-servicemen, dependents, and SSB candidates. This Pune-based platform offers services both offline and online. Their physical counters are present inside Army cantonments, at the SSB and ASC centres in Bengaluru, DIAV in Delhi, BEG Centre in Pune, and MH Kirkee.

The ideation for udChalo started in 2012 with an objective to transfer waitlisted railway passengers to fill the vacant last-minute airline inventory. While working on this, we observed that many Army personnel travel in general compartments due to unavailability of seats in the Railways,” says Varun.

Varun worked for Persistent and is one of the founding members of Tavisca Solutions, a product development company. Prior to starting udChalo, Ravi worked for almost three years in companies like Tata and Dassault.

udChalo has partnered with three airlines (names of the airlines cannot be disclosed due to confidential reasons) and sells over 5,000 seats every day. The founders believe that it is a win-win for both customers and airlines; the airlines can earn incremental revenue and the customers can get an alternative mode of travel.
API integration with airlines

Real-time booking engine udChalo has direct API (application programming interface) of the partner airline and has a two layer verification process on the website, which ensures that only genuine Army personnel book a flight.

On the basis of historical data and current seat filing pattern, airline changes allotted seats to udChalo every day within the allotted RBDs (Reservations/Booking Designator).

The startup has 14 employees out of which three are ex-servicemen from the Indian Army. For offline counters, they have recruited retired Army personnel.
Building business

udChalo charges a small fee over the price they get from the airline, which is one to four percent per ticket depending on peak or non-peak season. The revenue growth has been 50 percent month on month.

The startup is in negotiation with other major airlines and is planning to recruit employees with defence background, preferably war widows, war disabled, veterans, and dependents. The aim is also to recruit 70 ex-servicemen by seeking help from AWPO Delhi.

Other plans in the pipeline include opening up of UBC (udChalo booking counters) at 50 places, mostly in far-flung areas and field areas to cater to the need of armed forces personnel who cannot book tickets online. "Since all of us working in udChalo are from a defence background, we know the right channels to approach. We send letter communication to various defence units who inform their troops about the facilities available to them. Apart from that, we are active on social media for our marketing,” says Varun.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Meet the chief architect of Aadhaar, Pramod Varma

When Pramod Varma took the challenge to architect world’s largest identity project(almost 10 times bigger than the largest existing identity system), he didn’t have much idea of what he is up to. But driven by instinctive decision making and a believer in people’s capability, Pramod and his bets on technology made Aadhaar one of the most robust and scalable systems achieving its goal of inclusion like none other.

It’s 7:30 am, and I’m 15 minutes early for my scheduled meeting with Pramod Varma at his EkStep office. But when I climbed the stairs to the office, I was hardly expecting to see Pramod well settled with his work and having his breakfast alongside. He gave me a tour of the office and requested some coffee before we settled in for the interview.

One meeting with Pramod Varma is enough to convince you as to why he is the Chief Architect of Aadhaar and the architect of India Stack. An interview that was meant to last for an hour went on for more than two, and I still found myself wishing for more time.

This week’s Techie Tuesdays explores the life of an exceptional techie, one who is both an artist and an architect, intent on turning the vision of providing identity to more than a billion Indians into a reality.

The royal connection
Pramod comes from the erstwhile royal family of Kerala, the same one that famous painter and artist Raja Ravi Varma belonged to. Kerala's rapid shift to communism brought many royal family members, like Pramod’s parents, into contact with the harsh realities of life. His father often used to say, It's important to be positive and very focused on doing the right things. Results are not fully in your control, but nevertheless, if you do the right things consistently and keep your integrity intact, generally, you'll be successful.
Pramod with parents and brother baby
Born in a small town near Trivandrum, Pramod grew up in Kerala, and had a simple upbringing. He finished his entire schooling in Malayalam medium, with almost no exposure to English. He didn’t know about the IITs even after finishing his 12th standard. So, he went on to do his B.Sc. Math from a local college. During this time, he saw his first computer (dot matrix) print outs when his cousin brought some from IISc (the Indian Institute of Science). Pramod also had access to an Atari, the small programmable game machine, which his friend's elder brother had brought back from the Gulf. By 1987, he had made up his mind to go into computer science.

Pramod was also keen to get out of his small town. After finishing his B.Sc., he joined Hyderabad Central University to do his M.Sc. in Applied Mathematics. Till now, he has had no mentor. He recalls, Landing that first time in Hyderabad was very different. I never spoke Hindi or Telugu (or even English properly) before. Just landing with a small bed and a bag in the bus stand, I was trying to figure out the way to the university.

In the university, M.Sc. Applied Mathematics students did a lot of computer science courses, like pattern recognition, meta theory, graph theory, with M.Tech. (Computer Science) students in combined classes. Pramod topped the university in first year and came second the next year. He says,

“But it was irrelevant, because by then, I had really figured out that I wanted to go for M.Sc. Applied Mathematics with computer science courses. That is also when I realised why math was very powerful in computer science. Understanding data structures, graph theory and algorithms was easier.”

Pramod with brother on fathers lambrata
Later, Pramod wrote GATE and went to JNU in Delhi to pursue an M.Tech. in Computer Science. He also completed his Ph.D. in Graph Theory there. Because of his programming experience from his M.Sc. days, he was a lot more confident during his M.Tech. It was still the early days for FORTRAN and C then.

In 1989, Pramod wrote a full fledged vector graphic editor that could draw shapes and fill colours. This was written in PASCAL and ASSEMBLY. It gave him an exposure to why data structures matter. For example, the tool will know how to compute a shadow against a light source. After 1989, Pramod got into LISP, Prolog, and Expert systems. He recalls building a small medical expert system (primitive when compared to today’s systems, of course) as his first exposure to artificial intelligence. He even wrote a chess player program using the standard AI algorithms like tree pruning and backward tracking, but machines were primitive then, and humans always ended up beating the program.

The left brain-right brain balance

During his academic years, Pramod had kept his interest in travelling and art going strong. He was continuing with pencil drawing and water colours, which kept his left brain intact (probably because of inherited capability from the Ravi Varma clan). Engineering and logic, meanwhile, helped in developing his right brain. He even learnt to read and write Telugu when he was in Hyderabad. Pramod is a trained rock climber and mountaineer.

He realised that his three aspects were being developed simultaneously:

a) The technological part - because of the his academics.

b) Extracurricular activities - consisting of mostly adventurous like skiing, rollerblading and rock climbing.

c) Artistic side - pencil drawing, water colours and clay modelling.

Pramod during mountaineering
Pramod’s room on the third floor was probably the best in campus, with a lot of drawings and paintings on the wall and an equally great collection of other artwork kept all over the room (which he collected from his travels). He says,

I was unusually organised for a boys hostel room. But being a hardcore techie doesn’t mean you can't have a left brain and a social life.

The first job

Pramod gave his first interview for a job at Infosys in September 1993. Later, he gave two more rounds in October and November, going on to join the company at the end of the year. Back then, Infosys was around a couple of hundred people-strong, operating out of Koramangala, Bengaluru. Pramod was training the new joinees at the company. The teaching experience helped him by strengthening his fundamentals even further. He recalls,

At that time, Infosys only recruited from the IITs. These recruits could really spin you around and give bad feedback.

At Infosys, in 1994 only, Pramod was programming on the internet (on CGI programming). That was the first time he came across Nandan Nilekani. Nandan figured out that Pramod was the only one programming on the internet at the time. This was the time before mosaic browser and when JAVA was barely starting to evolve. Nandan told Pramod that 'consumer banking will dramatically change with the internet', and asked him to build a prototype. Banks didn't even have websites back then, and even core-based banking wasn’t practised by them (brand-based banking was common). Pramod built the prototype, which demonstrated through mosaic browser how people could log in through a fictitious banking website and do their banking. Though the company didn't take the product to completion, the project gave Pramod a chance to work with Nandan for around three months.

In 1995, Infosys funded a startup in the Boston area called Yantra Corporation, a supply chain product. Infosys put in $100,000 seed capital and gained a 100 percent ownership. The company’s CEO, Devdutt Yellurkar (General Partner at CRV [Charles River Partners] now), was looking for a tech guy who had worked on the internet before. Nandan recommended Pramod. He moved to the US in 1996 to be a part of the company. He recalls,

It changed my life completely. Sitting in a small office in Massachusetts and suddenly walking into the office of the CIO of GAP, J.C. Penney, talking about how we're trying to build a product that will disrupt the supply chain network.

Pramod with wife Lekha
Joining Yantra meant giving up some potential stock options in Infosys. Pramod, however, took an instinct-based decision and took a plunge. He really enjoyed working with the people there. He was excited about working with a great CEO and mentor, and alongside a great team trying to do something very different.

Yantra Corporation raised two more rounds of investment, one in late 1990s and another in early 2000. This was amidst the difficult times of the internet, with the dotcom burst. The company was very successful in retail. They rewrote multichannel retail commerce and owned the entire turf, including Hallmark, JC Penney, Big Best Buy, Target and GAP.

Pramod wrote a service-oriented architecture paper in 2003 and spoke on how micro-services and API-based platforms ease the way to build. In 2005, Yantra Corp. (then a $40 million company in terms of revenues) got acquired by Sterling Commerce ($600 million in revenues) for a 5x valuation. Pramod believes that it was primarily because of the superior product and engineering that the company got acquired at such a valuation. In a unique scenario, after the acquisition, the CTO, VP Engineering, Senior VP, CMO and head of product management at Yantra Corp. replaced those respective positions at Sterling Commerce. Yantra Corp employees remained loyal to Sterling, and stuck around for a long time. Pramod stayed on as well, finally leaving in 2009.

Sterling Commerce later got acquired by IBM for $1.4 billion.

Identifying opportunity in identity

In 2009, when Dr Manmohan Singh invited Nandan to do an identity project, Pramod almost instinctively decided to get in touch with his old colleague at Infosys. He says, "I had read about the power of digital identity and why digital identity and digital systems will bring about transparency and reduce the friction created by human beings who created discrimination among individuals."

Nandan told Pramod that he was taking a risk, given that he was enjoying his work at the time and it was uncertain whether the identity project would even take off or pay him anything. Pramod replied that he knew intuitively the right thing to do, and shifted within a week to do full-time volunteering for Aadhaar in July 2009. Pramod believes that Nandan had this magnetic capability to bring the right people to work with him.Also read: Santosh Rajan — the 56-year-old geek behind GeekSkool

The basis of Aadhaar

Pramod says, When an opportunity is given to you, and you have the capability to do it, then not doing it is not acceptable in my mind. Trying and failing is okay. (With Aadhaar), we didn't know if we would succeed or not, but we believed that we could and that we'd do everything to get there.

The UID team started with project planning, tech design and talking to experts in the first few months, which was followed by the formation of formal committees.

Design of Aadhaar

Within a month, three things became clear about the design of Aadhaar:
Fresh enrolment – The team had to start fresh (through enrolment) and not be dependent on any existing data (election commission).
Biometrics – If it had to be unique identity, then it had to be biometrics-based.
Keep it minimal - A digital identity and not an offline card-based identity. It had to be a general purpose identity platform, not a static/physical identity card (like the PAN card).

Discussion on the two aspects of identity - demographic data and biometric-based data - required a committee each. The demographic data committee was headed by N. Vittal, ex-Chief Vigilance Commissioner of India, while Dr B.K. Gairola (from NIC) headed the biometrics data committee. The demographic data committee finalised the four attributes to go into the database – name, date of birth, gender (including the third gender), and address. They were kept minimal to achieve inclusion.

Pramod’s key takeaway from his experience of working with the government is simple –

If you're genuine and if your intent is clear, it generally works out. This is the exact reason why I continue to work with UID today. You have to be truly appreciative of the way the system thinks.

Nandan also emphasises this – “If you want to make massive changes in the system, it doesn't come in a day, we cannot be impatient about it. We might also lose some battles, but we have to win the war.”

Tech stack of Aadhaar

Pramod recollects a rather worrisome conversation with a professor in the US who specialised in biometrics, having worked in the area for a long time (he volunteered for Aadhaar ). He said,

You'll need a football field full of million dollar computers to do biometrics deduplication of more than a billion people. It is possible technically, but unviable economically (a million computers of a million dollars each).

Pramod then spoke to Google and Facebook and studied their architecture. He realised that in Aadhaar, one identity deduplication has to do nothing with another person’s ID deduplication of data. They realised that it's a very parallelisable problem. Pramod then took a personal bet and decided to go with an open source, commodity computing. They didn’t use any proprietary chipset or computers because they couldn’t have a (architectural) lock-in situation of national critical infrastructure like this (if it succeeds).

The team decided to go with the following:

Open source

Commodity computing architecture - Knowing the speed at which commodity computing was growing (doubling each year according to Moore's law), Pramod decided to bet on it.
Unbundle – The team didn't want one vendor solution, so they unbundled the entire identity system piece by piece. This means unbundling the identity systems to enrolment, workflow, deduplication, authentication, error handling and manual quality checks.

Pramod shares, In the short term (first two years), it looked like we were spending more money because we stuck with the open computing architecture. At the end of six years, the entire cost of the UIDAI system is Rs 70 per person, including hardware, data centre, salaries, offices, and every other cost involved. It was almost $100 in the US (per person) and 100 pounds in the UK.

Pramod keeps telling the following to the architects (design people):
Understanding the purpose/problem statement. It comes above everything and everyone.
Clarity in your thinking.
Seeking feedback from many people.
Keeping it simple (and stupid).
Pramod with 99yr old grandmother
Techies and ground reality

There were situations where the tech team of Aadhaar didn't understand the ground realities. They didn’t know what happens in the village once the laptop goes and the camps (biometrics) get done. Though the original process of enrolment was simpler and technically correct, it didn’t take into account factors like handling of machines (and devices) and poor connectivity. They eventually added failure resilience in the system, and after many iterative pilot-based run throughs and updating software design for enrolment, the biometrics data collection camps were organised.

The team also realised the need to include approvals in the backend workflow. They readjusted the manual process and built a manual verification and adjudication workflow.

Building India Stack

As chief architect of Aadhaar, and because of his exposure to the system and the ability to solve large scale design issues, Pramod got access to build the rest of the layers of India Stack, the name collectively given to a bunch of layers the government has built. The first layer was Aadhaar and the second was eSign. This was followed by the submission of digital locker architecture paper, on top of which a bunch of payment layers were built. One of these is Aadhaar-based payment, through which the DBT (Direct benefits transfer) money is transferred. Looking at the uptake of IMPS in 2014, Pramod started working on an instant money transfer solution (layer), which is extremely simple and mobile-enabled to facilitate peer-to-peer transactions and merchants payments.

Pramod explains, For this to happen, you need a powerful API at the back that allows a distributed but instant money transfer protocol. That, when I wrote the first UPI protocol, sort of did what SMTP did to e-mail.

However, email was different with respect to the following three characteristics:
Store and forward,
Doesn't have encryption between the end point and
No trust establishment.

All the banks have access to UPI. And now with demonetisation, wallets will also join in.
What's next?

After the UPI, Pramod is excited about the following forthcoming layers on Aadhaar:
Electronic Consent Architecture – This will put an individual in control of their own digital footprints. It’ll provide a technological framework to provide a control (a consent) so that one can still use his/her footprint to get a loan or apply for a job. The draft for electronic consent architecture is out.
GST – This will take the system from a portal-based thinking to an API-based payments.
Bharat Bill Pay Systems - Out of one billion utilities bills paid per month, only 3-5 percent are paid electronically. There’s huge scope of easing the payments here.
Electronic Toll Collection – This will enable using RFIDs in vehicles. It will be useful in situations like implementing a congestion pricing for vehicles travelling through a congested area through an API.

Desirable qualities in a tech person

While hiring a techie, Pramod looks for the following qualities:
Depth of design thinking and why - Not the syntactical depth but the design thinking depth, especially for senior/architect level guys. Why we do something is more important than how we do it? How did the techie think about the design, network, storage problem?
Passion for what you're doing - You've got to be alive and spread that energy to the team. If you want to be an architect who can influence people's thinking, then this is a must.
Ability to communicate your thought process in simple words - Know something yourself doesn't mean anything. Getting people who are not technologists to understand why are you saying something is important.

People who influenced his life and value systems

Pramod with his parents and brother
In our conversation, Pramod kept on emphasising that he’s a people person. He is influenced by a set of people who are very close to him. Here’s what marks these people have left on him:
Mother – She was an extremely passionate teacher of the Malayalam language. Pramod believes that his animated style of talking on stage (or while teaching) comes from his mother. He believes in talking from the heart and not from a power point, which he learnt from his mother.
Father - He was a karmayogi, who focused on work, family, value systems, and kept them together. He had no rigid social structure or hierarchy in his mind for treating people differently. That lack of rigidity is very valuable to Pramod.

Brother - Prajod has been his best friend throughout his life. He has been a huge support whenever Pramod was in need of it.

Grandmother – At 99, Pramod’s grandmother is still going strong. She held the entire family together. Educated till 4th grade (because princess couldn't study more), she used to teach Sanskrit to MA students later in her life. She authored books and taught the veena, all while running the whole house. She was also an amazing story teller.

Wife - Pramod knew Lekha from his 11th grade, when she was in the 9th grade. She is holding their family together and has been a huge support. Since they knew each other from such an early age, they didn't have anything to hide or not talk about. This in turn allowed them to pursue many more confident ventures in life.

Cousins – Pramod has some crazy cousins who are very close to him, thanks to his grandmother holding the large family together.

Devdutt Yellurkar – He has played an instrumental role as a mentor, guiding him as a product architect.

Nandan Nilekani – He’s a visionary from whom Pramod continues to learn a ton even now. He’s surprised by his ability to abstract a pattern from a scenario and say it'll work elsewhere. He believes that visionaries have this power of abstraction, which allows you to compare the two situations and use components of learning to solve bigger (and newer) problems.

Pramod says, If youngsters surround themselves with the right people and put their hearts into their work (rather than only the brain), very rarely will they fail. It'll help you discover yourself and do the right things.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Two brothers add a sixth stage to grief — starting up

Chandigarh-based brothers Ajay and Chetan Pal Singh launch a health food startup, AG Taste, as a tribute to their late parents.

When life gives you a sucker punch in the form of death of a loved one, what do you do? Isolate yourself, turn to friends and family or travel in search of life’s meaning – each of us deals with grief in our unique way. Some channel their grief to create something new. Like brothers Chetan Pal Singh and Ajay Pal Singh who decided to start up when their parents died within months of each other.

Their food venture, AG Taste, is multiple things in one for the siblings. The company, launched in January 2016, is a tribute to their food-loving parents. By creating preservative-free, healthy nutrition bars it is aimed at making people healthy, which is understandably a pet theme for the brothers. By working together, they are also able to help each other through their grief.
Brothers Chetan Pal Singh (left) and Ajay Pal Singh (Right), Founders of Chandigarh-based AG Taste

Family, food, and tragedy

Their mother Ajinder loved cooking and was able to recreate complex dishes, according to Chetan, after just a tasting. Their electrical engineer father Gurbir was born with muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease that results in the weakening of muscles over a period of time. He loved exotic foods like stilton cheese and prosciutto but also used holistic food to manage his disease. The brothers inherited their parents’ fascination with food, with younger brother Chetan even becoming a trained chef.

Chetan, after completing his course at The Taj Group of Hotels (run by The Institute of Hotel Management, Aurangabad), moved to San Francisco to work at Michelin-starred Gary Danko and then at the Ritz-Carlton in Dubai and Four Seasons at Langkawi. Elder brother Ajay followed his dad’s footsteps to become an engineer and worked in advertising in Delhi, which allowed him to travel often to visit his parents in Chandigarh.

Life for the Pal Singh family was filled with food and travel, despite dad Gurbir’s condition. However, fate dealt a body blow when mom Ajinder was diagnosed with late-stage cervical cancer in 2014. She lost her battle with cancer in September 2014. Even as they were left reeling from the loss of their mother, their father’s condition deteriorated overnight and he passed away in January 2015.
Grief as inspiration

“My dad’s younger sister, who we are close to, suggested we all take a trip together to put the past behind us. The two of us, our aunt, and her family travelled to Turkey in April that year. There during one of our discussions, she suggested why not Ajay and I start a company together,” recalls Chetan, a state level shooter during his school days.

Food was a natural choice. In the US, I used to munch a lot on energy bars, so that was what I wanted to do. I had a clear vision of what the company would do then itself.”

Chetan, who along with his brother relocated to Chandigarh, began product development in 2015. “With my background at innovative restaurants, I had a fair idea of what flavour mixes would work,” says the 30-year-old. “We tested out few of the flavours with friends and placed them at a few stores in Chandigarh to get customer feedback.”

The duo zeroed in on three flavours – Berrylicious, Le Chocolat, and Nutcase. In January 2016, AG Taste or All Good Taste was set up. The name too is a tribute to their parents, as the ‘A’ and ‘G’ in AG Taste also stand for Ajinder and Gurbir. The bars are retailed under the brand name All Good Bars and are priced at Rs 50.

With production being done out of an industrial park unit in Mohali, the company makes about 500 energy bars daily. AG Taste bars were first launched across Chandigarh and are now slowly making a presence in stores in Delhi, Mumbai, and Jaipur. The energy bars are also sold online across 30 sites, including Amazon, BigBasket, GourmetBox, and Shophop.

AG Taste's nutri bars
Challenges and opportunities

Chetan and Ajay have now got the supply chain in place by sourcing high-quality ingredients from a handful of exporters and importers. “But we are always looking for better sources as we want to keep the quality of ingredients high even as production increases,” says Chetan.

The bigger challenge is educating retailers about the product. “People are still getting used to energy bars. Since we use only natural ingredients and do not use preservatives, the shelf life of ours bars is around three months. Supermarkets are looking for products with longer shelf lives,” says Chetan, whose unit employs five people for production and packing.

The last couple of years has seen the launch of numerous energy and nutri bar brands. RiteBite, YogaBars, On The Run, and MojoBar are a few of the brands in this space. Now, big food brands are also entering this space, drawn by the mainly young group of consumers. Kellog’s, for instance, has launched K Bars.

Competition, says Chetan, is good. Chetan says: It will make all of us focus on product differentiation. Also, all the brands are working at evangelising this segment and the growing awareness will help all of us."

The overall market is large – sales of health and wellness food products crossed Rs 10,000 crore in 2015, according to a 2016 report by Nielsen.

Miles to go

Chetan and Ajay are focusing on a few specific areas as they target growth. Chetan is working on new flavours for the energy bars. The company will launch other health food brands once the energy bars are well established. Expanding to other cities, most importantly Bengaluru, is on the cards. “In offline, we will target only a few stores that fit our brand and cater to our target segment of young customers,” says Chetan. He is also in talks with corporates for creating co-branded products but declined to share further details as talks are still on. “We will reach Rs 3 lakh per month revenue run rate by mid-2017 even if we do not get into new partnerships and stores. So the potential growth is much higher,” says Chetan.

But it is not just all business for the brothers. Once the business stabilises, they intend to give a part of the net revenue to the Indian cancer Society and the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation. For, finally, their goal is to ensure other families are not devastated by disease as theirs was.

Monday, 23 January 2017

The untold story of 16-year-old Mahima Rathod, a real ‘Dangal’ girl

Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal, starring Aamir Khan, may be scoring big on numbers, but the actual story of the two girls from a village in Haryana who put India on the world map is far beyond anything that can be put on reel or even written about.

Geeta Phogat, 28, the first to win a Gold in wrestling at the Commonwealth Games and also the first female wrestler to qualify for the Olympics, has become a status symbol for women everywhere. Before the Phogat sisters entered the world of wrestling, courtesy of their father Mahavir Singh Phogat, India was grossly oblivious to the many struggles faced by female athletes in the country.

As seen in the film, the girls hailed from a small village in Haryana, where the barbaric practices of feticide and ‘honour killings’ are still a norm. While the average family is determined to spend its limited savings on the education and well-being of a son, the daughter’s only goal is to train in household chores until she is married off to an acceptable suitor. After watching Dangal, many protested at the apparent ‘dramatisation’ of the situation in Indian village societies, but even they reluctantly agreed that there was an element of truth to the story.

While scores of the same conservative Indians have now been professing their ‘confidence’ in the Phogat sisters after the film, another young girl was being taunted for wrestling boys in the outskirts of Maharashtra.

Sixteen-year-old Mahima Rathod felt like her own story was showcased through Dangal. Born into a family of wrestlers, Mahima began training in the sport under the tutelage of her father, Raju Rathod.

Raju, whose grandfather, father, and eight uncles were all associated with the sport, had also managed to qualify for the state-level championship. However, a lack of funds and facilities forced him to drop out of the game and resort to farm labour in order to make ends meet. However, like Mahavir, he was determined to pass on his dream to his first-born son and live vicariously through his successes. And like Mahavir again, he was blessed instead with a daughter.

We got in touch with both Raju Rathod and Mahima, both of whom were willing to give us details about what it’s like to be a female wrestler in a society that considers the sport ‘male-dominated’ and the countless other challenges that she has faced through the years.

Raju stated that his epiphany regarding his daughter’s future as a wrestler occurred through a casual conversation with his brother, Santosh. Both had been cursing their luck at not having been gifted sons when they realised at the same instance that their dreams could be carried out by their daughters instead.

“I had never forced Mahima to take up wrestling since I knew how uncommon it was for a woman in our society to take part in it. But she insisted that this was her dream as much as it was mine. I come from a family of ‘pehalwans’ and maybe that rubbed off on my daughter. I asked my brother what I should do and he said that I should just start training her in the sport,” says Raju.

While Santosh’s daughter decided to pursue a career in medicine, Raju’s Mahima was more than happy to rise to the challenge.

Much like the Phogat sisters, Mahima was the only girl in the entire village who dived headlong into the ‘manly’ sport and faced her share of censure for it. Raju, too, had to face the ugly taunts of the entire neighbourhood, which collectively marked the Rathod family a laughingstock.

“I started training Mahima when she was only seven, and the village erupted in scandal. They would make fun of me and my family, and ask me how I could make my daughter a public ridicule by training her in wrestling?” he says.

Undaunted, father and daughter carried on their training, and soon enough, Mahima was enrolled in competitions beyond the village. However, procuring worthy opponents became a bit of a task for Raju. Most of the boys in the village refused to fight her because she was a girl, and in desperation, Raju had to resort to bribing some of them with Rs 5 to ten so that they would agree to the same.

“Most part of my training involved male wrestlers because there were no other female wrestlers in my vicinity. At times, these boys didn’t want to fight me either and I had to ask my brother to step in instead. It was only when I reached the State Levels that I got the opportunity to finally fight a female wrestler, and that was a learning experience indeed,” says Mahima.

Eventually her reputation in the pit began to grow favourably, and she finally got the opportunity to play against another female wrestler when she was selected for the Taluka-level match.

After successfully winning a series of state and district level matches, Mahima is now set to represent Maharashtra in the National Wrestling Championship at Patna. As of now, the 16-year-old who entered the professional pit only two years ago has already played two state-level matches and two national-level matches against other female wrestlers. In these, she was proud to win the Gold at the state level and the Silver at the national.

At the same time, she is also is preparing to write her 10th standard board exams, which are a few months down the line, resulting in an arduous daily routine of balancing training and studying. When asked on how she does it, she says, “I can’t give up my education. After classes, I attend my tuitions and then spend the rest of the evening and night, practicing hard.”

Raju’s limited salary as a soybean and cotton farmer has all but been spent on Mahima’s training and related expenses. His undeterred faith is what Mahima credits to her gradual climb up the ladder, much like Geeta, who dedicated her gold medal entirely to her father, Mahavir.

“The Government has not provided any backing for training or other purposes. I attribute my success and training to my father. He is and will always be my coach,” she says.

Although the many victories of the Phogat sisters across seas and within the homeland have refurbished the average Indian’s ‘support’ of female wrestling in the country, the struggle to receive government recognition still continues. Mahima received a scholarship from the Centre, but she still lacks the necessary funds that an athlete of her calibre is privy to. Similarly, it took Geeta Phogat a six-year-long wait to be appointed as DSP despite winning India the Gold while several of her male counterparts were granted the position on an immediate basis.

The Government hasn’t offered any support to Mahima, except for a scholarship worth approximately Rs 7000. Mahima entered the rings two years ago and has managed to make the cut to the nationals. However, we’ve been training the same way we began – with no funds for even a wrestling mat, making us resort to practising on the mud-floors in the ‘kheti’. The roof over our heads may not have changed but that doesn’t deter us in the least. We have a greater vision,” says Raju.

However, Mahima’s dedication to her passion and her already promising athletic prowess has caught the attention of several activists and social organisations, including social worker Parsharam Narwade, who has orchestrated a fundraising campaign to help Mahima’s dream come true.

As for Mahima, whose international trials are set to begin soon, this is only the beginning. Following the outcome of the nationals, she intends to take admission in the training academies at either Haryana or Kolhapur.

The 16-year-old is determined to win Gold for her country when she represents it on an international scale. As she told me confidently, “The gold is ours for the taking and I am going to win it for my country, my India.”

Friday, 20 January 2017

From Chennai, with love: The Postbox makes you nostalgic

A post box is an object that somehow makes you nostalgic, bringing back memories of an era of pen and paper, ink and warmth, and the excitement of receiving a little package, and this very sentiment was what inspired two youngsters from Chennai to start up.

Two friends — Madhuvanthi Senthil Kumar (23) and Nikhil Joseph (26) — named their product design firm ‘The Postbox’, wanting to get people to reconnect through design, and to give them a personal, nostalgic experience. Madhuvanti says, “The symbol of reconnection for us is a post box, in the most traditional manner. So we decided on the name instantly.”
Nikhil Joseph and Madhuvanthi Senthil Kumar
The Postbox’s philosophy in design and product development is influenced by the cultures and subcultures of India. “Ensuring utility and aesthetic sensibility, we design and create products for the Indian audience,” says Nikhil. Their catalogue has art and lifestyle sections; while there are postcards and wall art in the former, cushion covers, ceramic mugs, and the like make up the latter.

The two-year-old startup now has Rs 20–22 lakh revenue per month, with a profit margin of about 45 percent. Although they expect to be profitable this year, the journey has been a long one.
Building The Postbox

Nikhil and Madhuvanthi met through common friends. Having studied fashion design at Singapore’s Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and fashion management at Milan’s Istituto Marangoni, Madhuvanthi brings in the design expertise whereas ex-Facebookemployee Nikhil takes care of strategy, technology, and marketing.

For Madhuvanthi, design comes first. “Designers are not artists; we inherently become entrepreneurs when we set out on our own. So entrepreneurship was a by-product of my desire to reach out to people through design,” she says.

Starting out, both co-founders luckily had family support. Nikhil comes from a family of entrepreneurs in Kerala. “A first-generation entrepreneur, my dad had stressed on The Postbox being a sustainable business, and made sure we abide by the legal and financial framework set by the government.”

Even Madhuvanthi’s grandparents stepped in for resources and supply chain set-up. She says,

“My mother helped us out for the longest time at the packaging unit until we got a core team in place, and my father, with his HR skills, offered us his network of people and expertise.”

The Postbox went live as a platform for upcoming artists and designers on a curated level in September 2014. “For months after launching, I travelled to understand the market — Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Jaipur, and Gurgaon — working with artisans and weavers. I found out that there is a gap for niche product design. People want something unique in design and yet affordable,” Nikhil 

Accessory case from The Postbox

From May 2015, The Postbox started selling their own products manufactured in Puducherry, Pochampally, Kolkata, and Jaipur. “Our revenue was Rs 40,000 per month in April 2015. When we launched our product line including laptop bags in September 2015, it became Rs 9 lakh per month,” Madhuvanthi recollects.

Nikhil and Madhuvanthi also interacted with craftsmen in Auroville. About 80 women, all tsunami victims, were skilled with lamps. The Postbox worked with them to turn their work into a contemporary product line.

“From December 2015, about 20 artisans from a village near Kolkata started to make all terracotta products for The Postbox, and 1,000 pieces per week are sold even now,” Nikhil claims. So far, The Postbox has had over 27,000 orders.
Backend secrets

ThePostbox website is hosted on Shopify. All UX and UI changes are done internally. “Every time we work on a UX/UI change, we try to show maximum content in a seamless manner over a few minutes and gauge what the user wants to see based on history, purchasing pattern, and so on.”

The Postbox uses multiple sources for customer data, the most significant being Google Analytics. “We believe strongly in the practice of R&D. We experiment and develop each product using different materials and later test it on durability, utility, and aesthetic comfort,” Nikhil adds. Artisans and manufacturers are also involved in the design process as they can simplify the construction of each product.

The Postbox’s target audience is from 18–34. “We reach out to them through Instagram, Facebook, and collaborative stories through content-sharing websites and pop-ups,” says Nikhil.

In terms of product feedback, it works two ways.

Ceramic mugs from ThePostbox

“Every time a new product is launched, we reach out to the first 50 customers after 14–21 days of having the product delivered to them, and we ask them specific questions. Based on the analysis, we decide on what to act upon and what to eliminate and what makes sense in the long run.

“Every product after the sampling stage is tested by the team on an everyday basis for almost 14–21 days. Any sort of important utility change is then taken back to the production team,” Nikhil says.

About feedback on product design, the team considers how it will affect product positioning and pricing and impact customer experience. “For instance, after getting customer feedback, we added key holders inside bags so that finding the key is easier. A lot of our products have changed since the launch. They come with a utility factor, so we ask the customer how we can make it better,” Nikhil adds.

Mentors and funding

As with most startups, The Postbox’s toughest moment was when they were raising funds. Sify founder and lead investor at Chennai Angels R Ramaraj was their mentor. Since they were bootstrapped at the time, The Postbox couldn’t scale beyond a point although they were making Rs 15–16 lakh per month. So Ramaraj put in the bridge round and introduced them to Kanwaljit Singh. Soon Chennai Angels pitched in, as did Facebook’s Ritesh Mehta (who heads economic policies for Southeast Asia), and Bengaluru-based theatre artist Aruna Ganesh Ram.

Roll-up wallet from The Postbox

“When funds were drying up, we emailed everyone — including Ratan Tata. We got lucky; he invited us to meet. It was a unique pitching, not on metrics and numbers, but around product and strategy. He wanted to know where the leather was coming from and how old it was. We got clarity about taking our brand forward. He told us to scale vertically in one, before across verticals, for better brand recall. We implemented that, although he did not invest,” says Nikhil.

Future plans

The Postbox is now a team of 13 — in marketing, operations, design, and customer experience. They claim to have 100 percent annual growth. Designer bags and accessories which stand out with their style definitely have a market, especially with the likes of Chumbak and TheCrazyMe establishing themselves.

Being based in Chennai has its merits, Nikhil says. “It’s a virgin market — there are not many startups like this. The city is not too costly, it’s a leather hub, and provides proximity to artisans from Pondicherry. Those who manufacture our leather products also do it for brands like Land Rover,” he adds.

The Postbox claims that their success lies in the fact that there are now over 300 artisans across the country that are back to believing in the craft they grew up with, strengthening it, and willing to even scale it up.

There are plans to take the omni-channel route too. Madhuvanthi says, “We’ve been getting multiple requests about whether we have an offline space. So we are launching our first offline space in Chennai in March.”

The Postbox aims to cater to a large segment of people, rather than remain a niche player. There is no better time than now.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Much before Google, this platform has been offering digital services for MSMEs and SMBs

Early January this year, Google global CEO Sundar Pichai launched Digital Unlocked, a training programme for micro small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) and small and medium businesses (SMBs) in India.
(From L-R) Sahil Mehta, Anuj Shah and Ishan Doshi
Throughout his speech, Sundar talked about the contribution of MSMEs and SMBs in the growth of the country’s economy. It’s pertinent for the sector, which contributes to 37 percent of the country’s GDP and employs around 120 million people, to be digitally connected.

Engineering graduates Ishan Doshi, Anuj Shah, and Sahil Mehta concur with the view and vision of Google’s CEO. With the rising digitisation in the country, they aim to combine the power of digital, web, and mobile and apply to businesses to create and maintain their virtual presence in a cluttered marketplace.

In April 2016, the trio launched iTransparity, a digital consulting and engineering firm which offers full-stack solutions to SMEs, enterprises, and startups.

The Mumbai-based platform claims to offer services such as web design and development, e-commerce design and development, social media strategies and campaigns, digital marketing campaign, mobile apps development, and content writing.Also Read: How e-commerce changed in 2016 for Flipkart, Amazon and Snapdeal

“We observed that agencies and creative boutiques which claim to offer digital solutions to SMBs are not up to the mark. We spotted a lot of loopholes in the business process of these agencies and came across gaps in terms of transparency and client redressal. We were confident that we have the potential to fill these gaps and add real value to brands which focus not only on innovation but on transformation,” says 28-year-old Ishan, Co-founder of iTransparity.

With over nine years of experience in entrepreneurship, serial entrepreneur Ishan founded his first startup iThink Infotech in 2009. Anuj is a tech wizard who has pursued B.Tech (IT) and holds an MBA in finance. Sahil is a graduate in electronics engineering.

The co-founders bootstrapped the business with an initial investment of Rs 2 lakh. In less than a year’s time, they claim to be a cash-flow positive company.
Business growth

The platform claims to serve over 300 clients from different categories such as apparel, pharmaceutical, real estate, entertainment, travel, and others. And the client list includes Dell, Reliance, Myntra, Club Mahindra, Aditya Birla Group, Ambuja Cements, Punjab Grill and Cafe Infinito, among other small businesses.

The platform takes up one-time projects as well as follows a subscription and retainer revenue model.

“The most interesting statistic which keeps us inspired is that over 70 percent of our clients opt for a 360° suite of services which we offer. We are growing currently at 27 percent YoY0 and accelerating towards at least 35 percent in the next financial year,” says Ishan.

During January this year, iTransparity strengthened its foothold and announced the acquisition of Bengaluru-based CRM and integrated digital marketing firm ReachAll, founded by MediaForge Business Solutions.

ReachAll is an online marketing web application that helps local businesses create awareness, build long-term relationships and consequently builds customer loyalty and has seen widespread adoption in F&B industry.

On the acquisition, Ishan says, “Our plan is to expand iTransparity globally and increase its presence across geographies. ReachAll's excellent suite of brands and top talent, together with iTransparity's end to end tech and digital service offerings and ventures will be the best combination. We look forward to acquiring digital agencies to fuel our growth in India as well as to enter International markets like Singapore, Middle East, Australia, and the USA.”

The team size at iTransparity was 22, and with the current acquisition of ReachAll the strength of the organisation has increased to 32.
Digital market

In the e-commerce segment, there are multi-category e-retail companies offering full-stack solutions to sellers.Also Read: Indian e-commerce to hit Rs 2,11,005cr in 2016: IAMAI study

Launched in 2011, Zepo claims it can help one create and run an online store in under five minutes. The Mumbai-based DIY e-commerce platform offers a well-planned front-end, a simple dashboard and accepts online payments with a free payment gateway, as well as helps in logistics with a Bluedart partnership.

A similar platform, Kartrocket, offers end-to-end e-commerce solutions – setting up the website, integrated payment gateway, traffic generation tool, listing on marketplaces, and more than 200 apps along with automated shipping solutions. It plans to expand its presence and even has an app to solve problems around cataloguing and traffic generation.Also Read: Cloud-based inventory management startup Browntape raises close to $1 M from Seedfund & Krishnan Ganesh

Goa-based Browntape, founded in 2012, is yet another cloud-based software that helps online merchants manage orders and inventory for e-commerce markets. It has an enterprise model crafted for large brands and retailers who have little experience in scaling sales on online marketplaces.

Experts say that in today’s world of digital technology, legacy business models are out of date and ineffective. So, brands are working with a broader portfolio of agencies to meet the ongoing need for digital expertise.