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Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Self-learning algos could help farmers diagnose plant diseases and damages instantaneously

An application based on artificial intelligence and machine learning developed by a bunch of young Germans fresh out of university could disrupt call centres providing ‘agvisory’ services and perhaps even enhance them. But first let me take you to one such call centre set up by a multinational corporation which is in the seeds and weedicide business.

It is mid-morning. Lalan’s tomato crop has been afflicted by early blight. The farmer from Madhya Pradesh’s Satna district calls a number. It is picked up by an adviser at a highrise in Malad, a Mumbai suburb. Lalan complains he has applied copper oxychloride without effect. The adviser asks him whether he has sprayed the plant on both sides. He suggests mancozeb, a fungicide, instead. The farmer says the fix is effective but not available. Try chlorothalonil, the adviser tell him. “I can spell it out for you or you can call me from the shop,” he offers. He advises Lalan to be quick about it because blight is contagious.

Lalan had called before, so the screen prompts his details. The tomato crop is 44 days old. Lalan is advised to spray calcium nitrate to initiate flowering and also give bamboo supports to the plants.

The agent is Pravin Mane, a graduate of agricultural sciences. He has been at the job for three years. On the day of the visit, there were 30 of them on the phones out of a total of 42.

A farmer from Nalajhar village in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district is next on the line. He calls about 'Sardar' brand tomato seeds. Mane says he cannot advice on non-company brands.

Jethuram Markham wants to know why the leaves of his maize crop are reddening. ‘Phosphorous deficiency,’ Mane tells him and prescribes a foliar spray.

 Marathi caller seeks advice about his cotton crop. The screen prompts adviser Sachin Bhosle that the caller is Vijay Devaji Hulke of Seraj Khurd village in Korpana of Chandrapur. Bhosle is also a B.Sc in agriculture and has been seven months into the job. Hulke has 22 acres, and the soil is heavy or clayey. He has five acres under cotton and the first call was made on 14 June, 2014. Hulke, the screen says, has been calling regularly about fertiliser management, pest control, nipping and plant rejuvenation.

In the tough marketplace of the seeds business, companies realise that they can retain a lead over rivals only if the technology they have embedded in seeds is translated into yields in farmers’ fields. The technology development manager, who has set up the ‘agvisory,’ says the company will succeed only if farmers succeed.

Though seeds decide how much a plant will yield and whether it can resist pests, fight diseases or thrive in adverse weather conditions, they cannot deliver on their potential if farmers do not plant them at the right time, neglect proper spacing, misalign nutrient supply with stages of growth, ignore preventive measures or fail in taking curative action should there be a pest and disease attack. It is not just the genetic make-up of plants; their nurture also determines the quality and volume of output.

The service had been accessed by four million farmers since 2010, without advertising, just on the basis of word of mouth. That attests to the credibility of the service. "The backend advisory tool we have developed is the Bible on corn," said the India-region CEO. The value of the advisory depends on how relevant it is to farmers.

But such kind of services are likely to be disrupted ─ or enhanced ─ by an app called developed by seven Germans who are just out of University of Hannover. By uploading photographs of plant damage, one can get to know the cause and the likely remedy. Currently some Indian agricultural universities offer such remote diagnostic services but they rely on experts. Plantix is unique in that it deploys self-learning algorithms to detect and recognise optical patterns in photographs of plant damage caused by pests, diseases or nutrient deficiencies. ‘You can get the results in seconds,’ says Charlotte Schumann, one of the co-founders of the startup called Progressive Environmental & Agricultural Technologies (Peat), which was set up in 2015. She is a Ph.D in anthropology. Her colleague Alexander Kennepohl has specialized in geo-data management and plant pathology, while the Chief Technology Officer, Robert Strey is into artificial intelligence.

Charlotte and Alex were in India for five weeks to seek collaborations with Telangana University and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. Peat has an arrangement with Icrisat, the Hyderabad-based international institute for research in crops for semi-arid tropics. It sees India as a big user of its services, which it would like to offer in local languages. has a database of 60,000 pictures, says Alex. It can detect about 50 diseases. The target is to have a library of 200 diseases and deficiencies that would cover most of the afflictions of interest in the target geographies. There are about 2,000 users in India, "but what is 2,000?" asks Charlotte. They want more farmers to plug in as that would enrich the database.

While the application is being offered free, there could be licensed customisations for groups, commercial or non-profit, engaged in various slices of agricultural activity. Farm management could be a spin off, as also weather advisory services.

The startup is looking to collaborate with bright minds in India. It got a one-year grant from the German government and is now in the seed funding stage. A lot of VCs are interested, says Charlotte, "so we are in the good position of having to choose."

Mohan Kumar, a young agronomist of online grocer BigBasket who engages with farmers in Mysuru said the app is useful for field workers like him and also to farmers if they can handle Android phones. Based on photos uploaded, the app gives a list of probable causes, rated for relevance, but does not pinpoint any one.

This was also the observation of Sudhanshu Kumar, a large farmer of Nayanagar in Samastipur district. Kumar said he had sent pictures of damage to mango leaves. The app said the most likely causes were phosphorous deficiency, Anthracnose of papaya and mango and dieback disease. All of them got 42 percent rating. Kumar decided it was dieback disease. So the app requires prior knowledge. Kumar found the store picture facility helpful; it served as a record of diseases and pests in his farm. It also doubled up as a ready reckoner. Kumar also saw the app as a library of pest damage and diseases available at the finger tips. He could refer to it and clear doubts. But to make best use, farmers would have to send pictures correctly – with proper lighting, focus and resolution. Overall both were excited with the app. We also asked the head of the agvisory service alluded in this story (Monsanto) for feedback, but did not get a response.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

These Desi Cowboys deliver farm fresh products at your doorstep

Milk and honey is a metaphor for prosperity and purity in most cultures. There was a time when milk and honey were only available in the purest and richest forms, but not anymore! Commercialisation and mass production with poor implementation of quality standards has resulted in poor tasting food items. Also, adulteration with synthetic additives aimed at reducing costs and increasing shelf life has further deteriorated the quality of these food essentials. Twenty-eight-year-old Aalekh Agarwal assumed that he was lactose intolerant as he was unable to digest milk. During his stay in London – where he pursed his Master’s degree – he consumed the milk there and realised that his inability to digest milk was due to the poor quality of milk supplied by most of the brands in India.

Aalekh says, After some research, I found that the milk that we get in packets is a mix of buffalo milk, cow milk and goat milk – all mixed to maintain the minimum fat standard. This is an extremely unhealthy way of consuming milk. Similar is the story of most vegetables and fruits in our markets that are grown with copious amounts of fertilizers and pesticides. That’s when I decided to bring about a change by stepping into the farmer’s shoes.
Aalekh Agarwal, the brand offering from Aalekh’s company Trunks and Roots, is dedicated to hygienic and superior dairy and agriculture practices. Aalekh explains, “The cows in our farms are vaccinated, live in well-ventilated sheds and graze in open green fields on natural fodder. Not only is this a more humane treatment of the animals, but also leads to better quality of the milk. Also, milking is carried out in automatic parlours without any contamination from human hands.”

From pure, undiluted milk untouched by human hands, chemical-free fruits and vegetablesto organic honey, ghee, cooking oil and spices, the Cowboys product range has grown from the single product – milk – that Aalekh started with.

The short route from IT to dairy farming

Aalekh’s family is into an IT-related product business and hence he had pursued his high education in Information Business Systems. When he returned to Delhi in 2013, he bought a farm in Jaipur for his personal use and decided to try his hand at dairy farming. It was just a small farm with eight cows, and a small patch of land to grow vegetables. Aalekh’s lack of experience in agricultural science and operations was a handicap, but realising that automation was the way to go, he got almost every possible process automated. Soon his team developed expertise and the output from the farm grew beyond his family’s needs and so Aalekh decided to turn it into a full-fledged organic foods business.

Once the operations were standardised, a cold chain (temperature-controlled supply chain) was developed for transporting milk to Delhi and retailing of untouched milk was initiated under the brand name ‘’ in January 2015.

Today, the farm houses around 450 cows and has increased to 160 acres in size. The farm activities include dairy farming, floriculture, horticulture and vermicomposting. With modern greenhouses, fruit orchards and an apiary, the farm is a perfect marriage of nature and technology.
Cowboys takes the phrase ‘fresh from the farm’ very seriously

Aalekh commutes constantly between his office in Delhi and the farm at Jaipur. At Jaipur, the 85-member team comprise dairy managers and farm workers. The five-member team in Delhi focusses on marketing and the distribution logistics.

Currently bootstrapped, the brand has already touched the Rs 2 crore revenue mark in the last financial year.

Cowboys products are being stocked in many retail outlets in South Delhi and Gurugram and delivered to the customers’ homes in the same geographical area. Customers can also subscribe to them directly with the milk getting delivered to their homes. Select products like honey, ghee and mustard oil are available on e-commerce portals like Amazon.

Cowboys is now looking to expand to other areas of Delhi NCR and to Tier II cities likeChandigarh and Jaipur. The pasteurised variant of the cow milk is currently undergoing market trials. Since this milk has an enhanced shelf life, Aalekh hopes it will help in rapid expansion of the brand.

Monday, 19 September 2016

How this Noida auntyji is making a killing on YouTube

It is 4 am, and the early bird has just returned with the choicest worms to her warm nest of hungry chicks. The incessant chirping fills the Noida neighbourhood with the promise of a new day.

Nisha is up and about in the kitchen. She pours a strong cup of tea for herself to brace an intense morning that is about to follow. But she is not on call as a housewife and mother. Her children have long flown for distant shores, and it’s been a while since she has reclaimed the morning hours for herself.

Nisha Madhulika’s recipes are simple and easy to cook.
Nisha spreads out a handwritten note that has all the essentials she needs listed out. With her signature effortless moves, she arranges everything on her kitchen top. The fresh spinach, coriander, and green chillies are finely chopped, the peas pureed, and the flour mix ready. Her hair neatly tied behind in a simple ponytail, she is all set to face the camera in her home-pressed crisp kurta and a warm smile.

By now her husband is also up and ready. With the camera in his hand, he gives her some last-minute instructions. As the camera rolls, Nisha sets about introducing the ingredients of the dish she is about to make. After a few awkward moments and retakes, they finally manage to capture the process of cooking the particular dish, in this case, I am assuming, palak kachori. They will no doubt eat that for their breakfast, before her husband rushes to leave for work at 9 am.

And so it was, every morning, a new dish for breakfast and a new fear conquered. Nisha Madhulika, 56, has come a long way since the time she shot for her first video and uploaded it on YouTube on May 16, 2011.

Comments and feedback from her followers always bring a smile on her face.
Today, millions of people from all over the world visit her YouTube channel, which showcases vegetarian recipes. Nisha auntyji, as she is fondly referred to by her 772,739 (and growing) subscriber base that includes people not only from India but places as far away as Africa and Australia, is one of the top five YouTube stars in Asia. And hold your breath, with a total view of 236 million. Her number of views per month is more than 18 million, and the number of average views per day is between 575,000 and 625,000.

Since that early morning of 2011, she has uploaded 1,115 videos of vegetarian dishes (without onions and garlic, mind you) lapped up by new brides, students learning to live alone, and anyone who feels they need to taste her maa ke haath ka khana while living away from home. YouTube recently featured her in its Top Chefs coffee table book.

Recipe for success

Nisha Madhulika with her team.
Now an average YouTuber knows what the numbers above signify. But for those who do not, it means that Nisha is a millionaire. Just on the basis of her YouTube views, she probably earns more than the men in her house (she has two sons 36 and 34 years old, who are tech entrepreneurs).

Though she says she cannot give out the amount she makes through her YouTube channel, she says, “Itna toh mein kama he leti hun jitna kisi IT top executive ki salary hoti hai (I probably earn something close to a top IT executive’s salary),” she tells me with a smile.

However, unlike your assumption that she must be making money through brand endorsements, she told me so far she has refused every endorsement request. “We get someone approaching us nearly every week, but we want to be totally responsible to our viewers and treat them as patrons, and not corporations. I am not against endorsement, but it will have to be the right product and the approach will have to be planned by us.” According to her,

Money is not the driving factor in this enterprise. I am making good progress and there's no reason to be dissatisfied with what we are already doing. How can you endorse a brand if you don't believe in it 100 percent? You can't let a brand tell you what to say, and what not to.
Homemade formula

Festivals are a busy time, as she takes care to upload more videos.
Nisha says because of the money she earns, “mera haath thoda khul gaya hai (I have started spending now).” She takes care to buy new things for her kitchen. “I don't brand shop when we get things for our kitchen, but I try to find the best and the most useful items.”

A team of five people have replaced her husband and sons, who had helped her set up her website. “I am eternally grateful to them. I would not have been able to turn my passion into such a big venture without their support,” she says about her unassuming family.

“My husband would leave for office at 9 am, so we had to shoot the video before that, which meant that I would wake up early and keep everything organised,” Nisha tells me over the phone. Considering none of them were trained to operate a camera professionally, the initial months were tough. They had limited time to capture the cooking process, and if not done well the process would have to be repeated leading to a lot of wastage.

In fact, they had to convert a spare bedroom into a kitchen to improve the video quality with minimum distractions.

Finding purpose

Inspiring her team
But why on earth would a middle-aged couple sacrifice their sleep over something like a YouTube video, considered the preserve of off-the-top, crazy youngsters, who are stealing millions of eyeballs either just unboxing toys (seriously? come on) or making parodies of movies and, in the process, raking in millions of dollars?

“One thing led to another,” Nisha explains. After she and her husband moved to Noida, she quit going to her husband’s office where she was helping out with finance and accounts. “The commute was too much, so I decided to stay at home,” she adds. But unlike the other aunties of her colony, Nisha did not want to while away her time gossiping and watching meaningless television soaps.

“I wanted to do something that was helpful for people,” she tells me. So initially she started by offering tuitions to poor children. But many would drop out and she would have to begin again. Around that time, Nisha came across a food blog and she instantly took to the idea. “I always loved cooking even as a young girl. And when I read the blog that showed pictures of all stages of cooking, it blew my mind,” she says.

Nisha says her husband has been her biggest support.
Without another thought she started her blog in 2007, and what do you know, she was an instant hit. “People would leave comments and feedback,” she recalls. Emboldened, she started taking greater care with her pictures, presentation of the dishes, and explaining the procedure in a simple, uncomplicated ways.

“Soon, people were asking me to put up videos of the dishes. But it took me some time before I gave in and decided to actually shoot for the videos,” she says. Nisha has not looked back since.

Her rustic charm and simple ways in which she explains her recipes endears her to her audience even as the quick and easy recipes with local ingredients made using every-day kitchen equipment leaves the viewers totally satisfied. There’s no pretension and no frills.

She tells me that the biggest challenge while shooting recipes is that you only get one shot to get things right.

You can't uncook an item, so you're running against time to get that perfect shot before you have to move on to the next stage of the recipe. It's not so difficult anymore because I've been at it since a while now, but still there are days when it's tough.

Meal times are always special at Nisha's home. Seen here with her son and husband. Nisha shoots two to three recipes a week, depending on the situation. During festival time when everyone's cooking at home, I tend to produce more.

When she is not shooting, she is experimenting, reading, and preparing. “When I feel ready, I call my team and we shoot. There's a lot to do, so I don't really get much time free even on the days we don't shoot,” she adds.

“YouTube is the way I chase my passion, and age doesn't really matter when it comes to pursuing your passion. There's space for everybody, young or old,” she says.

If you have ever rolled your eyes when people have said ‘follow your passion and the money will follow’, then now’s when you roll them back. For Nisha Madhulika shows that the recipe for success truly lies in doing what you love best.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

How this husband-wife duo’s startup is helping people get their voices back

The 1993 Shah Rukh Khan starrer Darr, not only helped the Bollywood star receive critical acclaim for his acting skills, but is also known for the now-famous dialogue, “I love you, K-K-K-Kiran”. Stammering has often been used in cinema to dramatise a situation and also to provide comedic relief. But in real life, speech impediments can be embarrassing, as one is unable to communicate effectively.

It is interesting to note that Shah Rukh Khan and other famous personalities overcame speech impediments to succeed in their individual pursuits. But the process of visiting a speech therapist on a regular basis can be quite daunting and dissuading for many.Delhi-based Innoflaps has a low-cost solution to these pain points.
Story so far

Innoflaps is a startup in the healthcare space that aims to help people who have speech and language impediments such as stammering, delayed speech and language, and related ailments.

The startup was founded by husband-wife duo of Prashant Goyal(33) and Soniya Gupta(30). The co-founders have complementary skills, with Prashant having worked at as a product developer of medical devices, semiconductors and consumer electronics at companies like Samsung, Freescale and Stryke over the past 10 years. Soniya, on the other hand, is a medical professional, who has treated more than 500 patients in the past seven years, in her role as an audiologist and speech therapist.

Innoflaps team
Founded in October 2012, Innoflaps currently consists of an experienced team of 10, consisting of speech and language pathologists (SLPs) and engineers who have several years of clinical experience in speech therapy. They have developed multiple home-based speech devices to help patients speed up their oral therapy process.

The idea for such a venture came to Prashant and Soniya when they realised that it was not always feasible for patients to visit doctors on a regular basis in large cities because of traffic and other constraints. On the other hand, smaller cities and towns lacked good doctors or facilities. Therapy of any form needs regular sessions for it to be effective and long lasting. So they decided to develop cost-effective products that patients could use from the comfort of their homes. Prashant said,

We stand at a point where clinical experiences meet technology, which is to say that we are researchers in the field of speech complexities and manufacturer of speech products.

Innoflaps currently has three main products and they have received accolades and awards from the Department of Science and Technology (Government of India) and FICCI, Stanford University, University of Texas, USA and they were also the winners of IIGP2015 (India Innovation Growth Program).

The three products

Innoflaps' products are easy to use, affordable and portable, as they are battery operated. Their products are also applicable for diverse age groups, ranging from nine to 65 years.

Speechifi (Digital Speech Therapy) is an assistive communication device that assists and prepare parents, educators and therapists to perform effective speech therapy for either one-on-one sessions or for groups upto 12. It can be used to treat ailments such as autism, hearing impairments and learning disabilities. Prashant explains that the working of Speechifi hinges upon the three-modality principle, namely auditory, visual and tactile principle. He says,

"Speechifi stores and deliver high-quality sound with full acoustic energy, which allows a person to listen effectively and differentiate between two distinct sounds. The functionality of light system enhances attention and eye contact. The device operates to use original voice in speech stimulation, which in turn works towards speedier recovery.”

TinnitusRelief works on the principle of ‘habituation training’ of subconscious brain. With the help of different calibrated customised sounds, users becomes habituated to them and gradually the internal sounds disappear on regular use and therapy.

With 22 different calibrated customised sounds for brain training, TinnitusRelief provides relief to patients suffering from tinnitus, a condition where buzzing, ringing or hissing sounds are perceived, when there actually is no external sound.

SpeakFluent (Anti- Stammering Device) is a self-assistive device which works on the auditory processing area of the brain. It helps in rejuvenating muscles and motor neurons of the brain, thus improving language processing. It works on the delay auditory feedback system and imparts the reflection of speech in terms of rate of speech, loudness and pitch, which are the essential attributes of enhanced confidence and fluency of speech. The product is aimed at alleviating ailments like stammering and puberphonia.

Revenue model and future plans

Prashant notes that they have so far implemented their devices in over 50 clinics and hospitals, with about 4,000 children and adults having benefited from their products.Innoflaps has filed for a few patents based on their technology and going forward aim to sell their products through clinics and hospitals by tying up with doctors and other medical professionals. The startup is currently selling SpeakFluent for Rs 20,000, Speechifi for Rs 25,000 and are finalising the price for TinnitusRelief.

While the startup was initially bootstrapped, it raised a seed round of Rs 40 lakh from Varun Kumar, co-founder of Imax programme and Yogesh Andlay, who was also mentoring them initially.Going forward Innoflaps aims to create a learning management system (LMS) to standardise its offerings and also provide a framework for custom offerings based on specific needs.

The company's goal for 2016 is to also build a strong distributor network to sell 2,000 devices. Innoflaps is also looking to raise a Series-A round of funding to expand its scale and reach out to foreign markets like the Middle East, where there is a need for such products.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

From a part-time barber to a full-time entrepreneur – Story of 24-yr-old Gaurav Rana

It was December 31, 2015. The world was looking forward to usher in the New Year. But 23-year-old Gaurav Rana wasn’t so sure. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place. The company that he had painstakingly built over the past three years was crashing down around his ears, and there was nothing he could do but hide and watch. Who would’ve thought things could be ruined by heavy rainfall, something he had no control over.

Necessity made Gaurav turn his hobby into a business venture, making money from his paintings from class six. When he was in class eight, Gaurav says that he would go to a kirana store everyday to work; it was a barbershop located near this store that sparked his interest in the barbering trade.

He started learning the trade from a barber near his home in Sonf(Haryana), taking up the profession part-time to ensure that his family had food to eat.

This, however, didn’t stop him from securing 96 percent in class 10 and going on to pursue an Automobile Engineering Diploma from Dayalbagh Education Institute in Agra.

Gaurav (centre) with his team
Juggling two worlds

In 2011, Gaurav began his job as a Technical Apprentice Trainee in VE Commercial Vehicles in Preethampur near Indore, and within a year he was promoted to Junior Manager. He also went on to pursue his B.Tech through a correspondence course.

After working at VE Commercial, Gaurav realised that he wanted to do something on his own. Gaurav says:

I always wanted to learn something new and different. And have a good understanding of everything that was happening. That doesn’t happen when you work at large corporates; you are asked to restrict yourself to the boundaries of your work, and I wanted more.

So in 2012, Gaurav started his own event management company– Vocano Events. However, as it was important for Gaurav to get a monthly wage, he continued his job as a junior manager at night, and would work on his event management company during the day.

Starting with every small event he could get, Gaurav slowly learnt the ropes of the trade. Initially, he started making Rs 10,000 per event, and soon it touched Rs 1 lakh.

By the time it was December 2015, Gaurav quit his job and started making a profit of close to Rs 2 lakh every month. However, all of that changed on that fateful New Years Eve. Contracted to conduct a New Year’s party, Gaurav worked hard to ensure that everything was going according to plan until it began to rain heavily.

Picking up the pieces

“The rains just didn’t stop. And in fear of short-circuiting, we had to stop the music. The drinks and food were interrupted as well. It just was 10:30 in the night. The crowd, I guess, was already a little high and was getting angry that there wasn’t any food or drink coming in. Angry shouts and protests soon turned into a mob run of broken tables and people getting beaten up,” he recalls.

Things had taken a turn for the worse, with the little profits that Gaurav had accumulated soon being given away to compensate for destroyed property and damages. All in all, this meant losses of between Rs 10 and Rs 15 lakh in the whole ordeal.

The new year wasn’t beginning the way Gaurav had anticipated. He was without a job, his business had to be shut down and he had no money. He had gone a long way to bring his family from Sonf, Haryana to Indore. Disheartened, Gaurav didn’t know what he would do next, but he also knew he had to be an entrepreneur.

It was then that Gaurav got the idea of Calipso. A platform that works as a beauty services provider where people can book their appointments through a website, a phone call or an app anywhere, whether at a salon or a doorstep.
Second life

He got the idea of Calipso looking at his mother, who was working as a beautician. She was fairly well-known and would be called on for house visits. She used to get contracts for marriages, but that was limited to only those people who knew or heard of her. It was then that Gaurav realised that there was a need to bridge the gap.

“In this world of knowledge asymmetry, I felt it was important that people had an idea of every service provider, while being able to understand their ratings and book them whenever they wanted,” says Gaurav.

In order to get this done, Calipso tied up with salons, ranging from the basic to the premium. The team also tied up with independent beauticians and freelancers. Version 2.0 – building a team that stuck around

This time around, Gaurav knew he had to take the right steps to ensure that he got a strong business and team around him. He met with the Senior VP-Engineering at Eichen Motors, Aditya Kumar Shrivastav, whom he had met through his days at VE Commercial Vehicles.

It was then that Gaurav got to meet Aditya’s wife and Calipso’s co-founder Shubhra Shrivastav. With over 25 years of experience in different fields of online and offline business, Gaurav knew that with Shubhra, he would have the much required business knowledge that would help Calipso scale.

He roped in his brother Mohit to handle accounts and administration; he got in Love Bhatnagar, whom he met at a startup event, as their Sales and Marketing head; and he brought Ruby Saluja, a former colleague, into the company.

Getting Vinod Sood, startup mentor and Managing Director at Hughes Systique, as a mentor was a big boost for Gaurav. He knew that if he had to succeed, he needed good guidance and a mentor. It was coincidently during a stay at OYO Rooms that Gaurav thought of Vinod and decided to reach out to him through social media.

“He told me to call him after a week. I didn’t think he was serious. But after a week, Vinod called me himself and asked me to meet him in Delhi,” says Gaurav.

In the seven months since its inception, Calipso claims to have already completed over 3,000 services with over 950 customers, with order values ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 2,000. The team claims to have between 60 to 70 percent repeat customers.

Gaurav adds that they work through a revenue sharing model with freelance stylists and salons, and they have their own trained beauty professionals on their payroll. The team intends to have a pan-India presence by 2017.

Speaking on why he chose to mentor Gaurav, Vinod says: There is this fire and passion in Gaurav that I see, which makes me believe in his idea and dream. He isn’t a likely candidate that most mentors would choose. Gaurav doesn’t have a pedigree degree, his English communication skills aren’t perfect, but I know of his journey and there is a fire in him that I believe will make him win. Most mentors tend to back safe candidates, but here it wasn’t about the ticks in the boxes, it was about what one can do with passion.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Don’t just start up- please take time out to sort out the right problem

Every day, we hear new startup stories, some are inspiring, some are disappointing and some just don’t make any sense, neither in terms of the usefulness of the product, nor in terms of being a worthwhile investment opportunity.

It is a great thing to start up, and we must give it a try, but what is more important to note is that most of the ideas these days seem to not be in sync with what is required on a long term basis, or what our country really needs. In the excitement and eagerness to start something new, startups have forgotten some basic rules of the game, and hence do not seem to be aiming at bigger goals.

Let’s try and analyse this-

E-commerce Websites

Do we need another one? Are any of them actually making money? If we review the financials that are on the MCA portal, available on paying a simple fee of Rs 100, we can see that these balance sheets are definitely not showing any profits, and are bleeding investor money. Now, the positive impact of these websites is the opening up of a whole new online marketplace and related ecosystems, the fact we can order almost anything online and get it delivered in a couple of hours is super convenient for some. However, most of these e-commerce companies have realised the importance of investing in the backend support and related activities, which, to my mind, makes for a much more profitable venture. Thus, we often see these e-commerce ventures scouting for companies providing innovative warehousing and logistics solutions.

The startup ecosystem can get better only if more startups focus on improving the ecosystem at each and every step- that will eventually improve the online experience. So instead of focusing on another online portal, startups should focus on related activities, related problems that are currently a hindrance to the success of the online shopping world, and work out a solution to resolve them in the best and the most efficient manner.


This is another hot topic in the startup and investor circle. However, I think this segment is doomed to failure since startups are trying to make this work without actually thinking about the underlying dynamics of the sector. Many startups in this sector have closed or are about to.

Why is this so? Because they are not really focusing on resolving issues in the present ecosystem required to make this work. Startups need to find solutions to first enable an ecosystem to develop; home chefs, professional chefs, delivery people, kitchen equipment, delivery vehicles, quality control, food labs and test labs- there are many variables involved in this business, and many areas for potential success. A startup in this sector can be profitable only when the startups start focusing on infrastructure first. Startups should also make the apps and the enabling technology, but it is also important for them to introduce the government to new infrastructure developments, support new ideas for employment and address a wider issue so that it can benefit the apps and technology that will support it.

Taxi Aggregation

As far as this sector goes, we can only see a fight between two rivals with foreign funding trying to capture market share and disrupt the field. The good thing with this sector is that people found a reliable, fast and cheap mode of transport, and drivers found a higher standard of living; but what's next?

Startups need to look into the adequate training of drivers. What about car servicing for such drivers? What about car loans? What about social profiling, and driver behaviour mapping? There are various related portions available to explore, and building a startup to help in the evolution of this sector can be meaningful and relevant.


The only way India will start competing with the world, especially the USA, is by focusing on R&D. Apps will always depend on Apple, Google and Microsoft; no matter how good your app is, the bigger chunk of profit will always go to these companies. Unless we start ideating on a bigger scale and support large R&D projects, it will be difficult to achieve bigger dreams.

A startup needs to focus on ingenious ways to resolve our country’s problems, starting with fixing roads faster and making them more durable, and enabling every house to generate its own power and utilise resources efficiently. New and innovative housing and building material will enable the government to achieve its ambition of providing shelter to all; ingenious ways for revolutionising agriculture and related technology uses, and community building will enable self-sufficiency; e-schools will ensure that education reaches every village.

We just do not need another temporary viral idea; we need a good reliable efficient solution to each and every problem faced by our country, because every successful solution gets recognised and rewarded. The day every startup works on resolving India's problems will be the day the Startup India project will succeed and India will get its successful entrepreneurs.

So don't just start up, please take time out to sort out the right problem.

Friday, 2 September 2016

How Dineout managed to turn the tables on dining experience

“When we started in 2012, it was of the most difficult times to start in the table reservations space. Everyone wasn’t as savvy with the online world as they are now and nobody would look at reserving tables online, especially in India,” says Vivek Kapoor, Founder, Dineout.

However, the four founders of Dineout – Ankit Mehrotra, Sahil Jain, Nikhil Bakshi and Vivek, knew the culture of doing things online would soon catch up in India. There already was a dining-out culture, and they were confident that before long people would start booking tables online too.

But it was a Herculean task. Restaurants weren’t as tech-savvy as they are now. Also popular restaurants didn’t sense the need, as they already had many patrons. On the other hand newer restaurants felt that they wanted to explore the solution when they were financially strong.
Ankit Mehrotra, Vivek Kapoor Sahil Jain and Nikhil Bakshi
No payments to growing partnerships

So for the four founders it meant taking endless calls, waiting for hours in lobbies to get a cheque for a meagre Rs 2,000, no holidays, and questions like – ‘are you still with Dineout?’ When the team had launched in 2012, they had also raised a small seed amount, and they were able to scale because they were generating revenue from day one.

Today, the social media buzz for a restaurant starts much before it opens. Vivek says that online real estate for restaurants is equally important as the physical, offline one. So today, while everyone is talking about the foodtech bust and how they are struggling, few realise that we haven’t even hit 10 percent of the online food market.

The four-year journey for Dineout has been an interesting one. In the second year of its business it was acquired by Times Internet at a deal value of $10 million.

In September last year, Dineout also acquired InResto, which was founded by Vijayan Parthasarthy and Vamsi Yalamachili. InResto provides features like table management, reservations, customer relationship management and analytics, home delivery and takeaway management. On their entry into the B2B segment with InResto, Vivek says:

In 2014, we were able to understand that a restaurant today is unable to recognise or profile its customers. In many cases there are customers who come in several times into a restaurant, bill ‘x’ amount and order similarly. It was important that restaurants had that visibility.

The acquisition was to help Dineout work the complete value chain on how restaurants get their customers, manage them and re-engage with them.

Working from the receptions

The team today claims to have over 3,000 restaurants for table reservations, including chains like Azure, Impressario, Texmex and Speciality. Over 1,000 restaurants use the inResto Restaurant Management Suite.

Dineout has seated 1.5 lakh people so far, a number that is growing by 25 percent month-on-month. Diner count on the Dineout- inResto platform is increasing 30 percent month-on-month. Adding to this since chains have the inResto platform, wherever a restaurant is opened, the inResto base opens out.

Miten Sampat, Head of Corp Development, Times Internet Limited, says Dineout and inResto solve an important problem in the user lifecycle journey – discovery to destination for a customer looking to eat out. He adds that while considering the acquisition, the team was definitely one of the biggest factors, apart from the business.

He also adds that now with inResto, they are able to provide a complete tech stack to the restaurants, which has fuelled the recent growth.

However, when Vijayan started inResto, he began ground-up. In January 2015, he would be working at the reception at Toit in Benglauru, to understand what actually happens on the work front. “The system was built on ground, and we wanted to make it so simple that if you use WhatsApp, you can use inResto,” says Vijayan.

L-R - Vivek Kapoor and Vijayan
Creating a seamless system

Today, a customer books a table in a restaurant, and when he goes there he can order through the app and can even pay through the app.

“We are piloting with payments on the app with over 200 restaurants and 50 percent of our bookings are transacting through the app already,” says Vivek.

The market however is getting tougher. The restaurant and table booking space has seen booming activity in the past year. Zomato became another player in the segment with the acquisition of the US-based NexTable, a restaurant reservations and table-management platform. The new service is called Zomato Book. Vir Sanghvi-curated, EazyDiner, a review and table reservation platform, raised $3 million Series A recently co-led by existing investor DSG Consumer Partners and new investor Saama Capital. TripAdvisor has ventured into the space by acquiring Dutch-based IENS.

According to a Forbes report the percentage of restaurant bookings online is low in almost all markets except the US, where it is at 20 percent. The numbers are however slowly growing, and the market seems to be taking an upward trajectory.

Claiming a slice of the pie

Vivek adds that while it is a crazy competitive market, to drive the kind of market and handle the operational issues that they have dealt it, Dineout along with inResto manages the whole chain.

“We can call ourselves number one in driving business to our clients – restaurants. The volumes keep growing. My unit economics is very under control, thanks to being only technology-driven. We don’t have to manage a fleet of delivery boys and everything is controlled on the app,” says Vivek. He adds that also their revenue model is completely B2B, as the restaurant works with the Dineout team even when there is a B2C side, thus making their model stronger.

The team has also launched Dineout Plus in November. It is India's premier dining programme spread across four cities and 200 five-star hotels, which guarantees 25 percent off on total bill. The team has also recently launched their deals section where the diner can opt for curated experiences. Vivek says:

But with scale, there are different kinds of challenges. Apart being acquired by Times Internet and acquiring inResto, the journey had no stops, we had to expand to cities, increase our sales force and focus on our technology. This means ensuring your initial team understands growth and drives towards it. With inResto, it was a perfect marriage; the teams works together. And to grow it is important to work like a seamless well-oiled machine.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

6 years, 4 products, and 5 continents — what is this New Yorker doing in India?

A hidden wanderer, Adam Walker has gone to the extent of using his education loan to start up. Adam’s tryst with starting the perfect venture has taken him from Europe to Africa and now to Asia.

But what caused this downtown New Yorker to finally bring his aspirations to India? The answer lies in his narrative.

Adam Walker, Founder, Hummingbill
The start

Adam’s journey as an entrepreneur began at the age of 22. He started a small wind turbine company called Kosovo Wind Garden in Pristina, Kosovo (Europe). The idea was to addresses the country’s lack of reliable electricity. Running it for a year, the idea eventually fizzled out in March 2012.

However, his love for creating a social impact took the shape of his next venture. Looking at electricity being stolen by businesses and consumers, he built an objective meter reader with other co-founders, which monitored electricity consumption along with intelligent load shedding. The idea picked some steam and seeing an active market in Chile, he enrolled the venture to the Start-Up Chile Accelerator programme in 2012.

While settling himself in Chile, things took a turn, as his investor was caught by the FBI for illegal money laundering from Russia. He was shocked of the happenings and was even ousted from the organisation. Things became bitter, but Adam wouldn’t stop taking his chances. It was too soon to call quits.

The zeal

Taking a page from his book, Adam remarks, A problem in my history is jumping to work on something without really thinking of setbacks and reflecting on the options.

Operating in the electricity monitoring space and looking at the condition of bill generation, Adam with an ex-colleague started a mobile billing subscription software, RemoteCycles in May 2013. The aim was to correct operational efficiencies preventing different customers from paying different amounts for the same service. Looking at the boom of mobile money amongst the population, he chose Nairobi, Kenya, as his next test ground.

After moving there, Adam soon realised that he fell into the classic problem of addressing the solution before the problem. Utilities in Kenya were majorly governed by public companies, and lack of competition caused these companies to have no incentives to improve operations.

This time the loss was big, and his firm was bleeding money and time. In the same year in July, Adam went back to the US and did all kinds of odd jobs to support the venture. He reminisces, It was really difficult being over-educated and underemployed. The times were really stressful.

A person who had his bachelors in Physics and Philosophy from Carnegie Mellon University and a Masters in Science, Technology and Public Policy from Rochester Institute of Technology was walking dogs and stacking wood at saw mills to keep his venture alive. The tough times didn’t chose to leave his side.

Although working in various countries, all of Adam’s businesses were incorporated out of the US. In December 2013, the co-founder left and Adam moved back to Kenya. Dearth of personal funds led Adam to move to a servant’s quarter in Nairobi. Building his fourth venture called HummingBill, he continued with his odd jobs, unlocking phones (imported from US) and tutoring students in Biology.

But things took a turn, when Paul English, Founder of travel metasearch Kayak, and Africa Angel Network chose to fund his venture for $45,000. Looking at the limited scope of the market, his advisors kept asking him to move out of Kenya.

But clarity struck Adam only after an exploratory trip to Mumbai in July 2014. Understanding that he gave his very best, Adam realised the need to move to a bigger market. And, in December 2014, Adam flew to Mumbai to give his dying startup another lifeline.

The introspection

Trying to understand where he went wrong, the learnings were fairly simple.

He believes that the environment and people with whom he started the company weren’t the best. Also, the culture in these geographies lacked intellectual capital in terms of experience and product understanding, not to forget the difficulty to raise capital.

But, there is a silver lining to his story, where all his experiences haven’t gone in vain. It’s been more than a year for Adam in India, and his B2B automated billing and invoice generation solution Hummingbill finally seems to have taken off.

The team at Hummingbill
A new start called Hummingbill

Adam says, Forty million small and medium sized businesses in India experience cash flow issues. In 2015, 97 percent of those B2B businesses reported consistent late payments from their clients, where their average Days Sales Outstanding was 65 days, the longest in Asia. Further, one in three invoices unpaid in India is due to the seller's fault, predominantly from their clerical errors while drafting invoices.

Looking at the enormous market and the depth of the problem, he moved to the tech capital of India — Bengaluru — to build a solution that allowed vendors to track invoices in an intelligent way, moving invoices to cloud.

Further, mentorship became easier as India had not just a history of indigenous software, but also talent migrating from the Silicon Valley.

The software solution called Hummingbill helps to remove the dependency on an accountant, allowing sales representatives to create and send invoices.

Integrated with payment gateways like Razorpay and Instamojo, the invoice comes with a payment button which vendors can use to pay the raised invoice. Integration with payment gateways also allows Hummingbill to automatically reconcile the payment.

Sitting as a Gmail plugin, the data are made available to sales representatives in a personalised manner. The solution helps businesses provide visibility into the designated sales representative responsible for invoices, while removing operational inefficiencies to the process. Reminders to businesses for payments due are also automated.

Additionally, aging reports, a tool used by collections personnel to determine which invoices are overdue for payment, are automatically generated and customised depending on the designation of the person in the organisation. This helps to bring complete automation to the process.

The software automatically syncs with Tally software, which seems to be dominating the market. The firm has raised $100,000 from a mix of angel investors from Singapore and Dubai.

While starting up, one of the major threats Adam saw was from manual accountants, which would help businesses manually create invoices monthly. The key was to disrupt them and sync the invoicing solution to Tally, which was dominating the market. He adds:

In India, there is a slight resistance towards newer technology. Further, there is a high fallback on the population for doing these tasks. However, in billing it doesn’t scale with a lot of companies still having bad books.

According to the company, over 300 businesses have downloaded Hummingbill, and uploaded over 9,000 of their clients onto the platform. Since its beta release in June, over 18,000 invoices have been tracked. The firm has garnered Rs 40,000 in revenues since June and claims to be growing at 45 percent month-on-month. Having a workforce of four members including Adam, the team is equally divided amongst engineers and sales representatives.

The company also faces competition from bigger brands like Zoho Invoice, Zoho Books, Beyond ARM and ezyCollect amongst many others in the accounts receivable management software market.

In the next nine months, the company is looking to raise a bigger round of $500,000 to triple their team size and also looking to break even.

The Adam Walker of today

The vision for this entrepreneur remains to be even bigger. While things seem to have finally picked up, Adam seems to be nothing like his past. Although a sense of regret lingers in him, he owes a better sentiment towards his life experiences and past failures.

Having learnt a lot, he questions and validates every move before taking a sound step. He did that while launching Hummingbill in India too. But his failures haven’t deterred him from taking leaps and jumps forward, because as it’s said the rolling stone gathers no moss.