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Thursday, 20 October 2016

From making his own MP3 player to going after BOSE and other premium music earbuds- The Tekfusion story

You are probably an audiophile, one who is enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction, if you admire audio quality over the actual music, prefer FLAC over MP3 and have ‘burnt in’ your earphones, of which you are overly possessive. Here is the story of one audiophile, Jayesh Gupta, who turned his passion into a business.

Jayesh Gupta
The backstory

Born in Jamhambhalia, a small town in Gujarat, Jayesh (30) was intrigued by music at a young age. His most memorable moment from his early teens was when he got his music collection recorded from CDs to TDK SA Type II cassettes for his Walkman, to experience the best audio performance at the time.

Jayesh’s family had moved to Kenya from India when he was two, and he spent his childhood there, eventually going on to earn degree in Computer Science at Kabarak University, which was founded by Kenya’s former President Daniel Moi. During college, he would often skip classes to embark on ‘Do it Yourself’(DIY) projects in embedded systems at home.

During his internship at a local computer centre in Nakuru, Jayesh imported a PIC32multimedia development kit and other electronic components from Serbia and the United States to make his own MP3 player, to which he integrated an audio amplifier for better sound. Recalling that experiment, he said,

I was not happy with the output of the Philips earbuds I had bought, so I decided to invest time to learn about how to perfect the performance of earphones.
Starting up

After completing his degree, Jayesh decided to return to India in 2011. As a self-confessed audiophile, he noted that due to the rise in the usage of smartphones and portable music players as the two primary sources of music playback, there was a big market for premium earbuds at moderate prices.

So, while his four siblings were pursuing careers in accounting, Jayesh decided to start up, and co-founded Tekfusion in Bengaluru with his father Maheskumar J Mehta, who contributed to the company's seed funding till its first production run.

Jayesh currently serves as the CEO and Managing Director of Tekfusion and is supported by a lean team of three people. While there are different avenues to appreciate music in the form of home entertainment systems and stereo speakers, Jayesh said,

Smartphones are on the rise, and the world is becoming more mobile device-oriented than ever. So there is an unmistakable need for high quality personal audio, because we spend less time at home and more time on the run for our daily activities.

But Jayesh notes that the default earphones or earbuds supplied by smartphone manufacturers are generally not good enough for the enjoyment of music. As audio reproduction is not necessarily the main area of expertise of mobile phone manufacturers, they are generally not able to provide quality earphones with their products.

Ecowoofers Ebony
Talking about the need and importance of quality earphones, Jayesh said, “When we use any ordinary pair of headphones to listen to music, we are not exactly listening to the original composition of the music, as the artist or the composer intended.”

R&D and manufacturing

Since its inception in 2011, Jayesh said, Tekfusion’s main focus has been on reproducing sound in its pure form, using combined research of how diverse materials work with sound reproduction and how transducers can perform better.

Jayesh added that Tekfusion invested a lot of time and effort to create a plethora of prototypes before it could come up with what the company calls Tekfusion's ‘Signature Recipe of Sound’- a Dynamic Speakers System with fine materials that is present in all of its audio products.

The lifecycle of a Tekfusion product involves design, engineering and prototyping in Bengaluru, which is followed by manufacturing in China through partners. The last stage before shipping to consumers involves three stages of quality control- a material and assembly check, a sound signature test and a packaging check.

The company launched its first product- Twinwoofers In-Ear Headphones - in 2012, and made it available to the Indian market through different e-commerce channels. Then in 2013, Tekfusion launched the Twinwoofers M - Mobile Phone Headset (compatible with Android, Apple and Blackberry devices), which featured multiple accessories and an echo-cancelling, one- click microphone for answering phone calls.

In 2014, the company launched its entry-level product - the Ecoofers In-Ear Headphones, whose enclosure is made of two components - real wood and aluminium. The wooden portion of the earphones comes in two variants - Bamboo and Ebony - to give the earphones a natural accent.

In 2015, the company made several revisions to its original product, Twinwoofers, by improving its audio performance and ergonomics, releasing an upgraded version of the product.

Sector overview

The Indian market is known to be a tough market to crack, with consumers considering value for money to be a top priority when making a purchase. While premium players like BOSE, JBL and Audio Technica have made in-roads into India, their price points are generally higher than what most average consumers are willing to pay for their music consumption purposes.

There are other players in the market like Xiaomi and Skullkandy, which have been reasonably successful in providing premium quality earphones and earbuds at reasonable prices. Tekfusion aims to go after this market, competing with both small and big players. While the profit margins may not be high, it is possible to make the unit economics work by selling a large volume of products.

While TDK SA Type II cassettes were the gold standard to experience music at one point, Jayesh agreed that FLAC is currently the preferred format for serious audiophiles to enjoy music in all its glory. Based on his experience in the Indian market, Jayesh has found that the Indian audience loves base, and integrating deep base into earphones is not easy.Related read: Does listening to music make you more productive?

Marketing strategy and future plans

Jayesh estimates that Tekfusion had sold around 40,000 earphones till December 2015 with minimal investment on marketing, mainly relying on social media, its own music blog and word-of-mouth instead.

During the 2014-15 financial year, Tekfusion was a sponsor of, an audio gadgets community where audiophiles could directly post their opinions on new audio gear. During this time, Tekfusion announced the launch of its products for the United States market through Amazon US. Currently, Tekfusion ships globally and sees a majority of its orders coming from India, the USA and Japan.

When Apple announced the iPhone 7 earlier in September, one notable change that caught everyone's attention was the absence of the 3.5mm audio jack that has been an industry standard for a long time. Citing ‘courage’, Apple noted that it would instead be placing its bets on its new bluetooth-enabled Earpods. Talking about this, Jayesh believed that wired earphones currently provide a better listening experience, and it will take some time for bluetooth earphones to gain widespread appeal.

Recently, in 2016, Tekfusion re-launched its website and now lets consumers directly purchase from them, easing the product warranty claim procedure online, and also provides step-by-step instructions for burning-in headphones - a practice of ‘breaking in’ a new pair of headphones to improve long term performance.

Going forward, Tekfusion aims to invest more on R&D of small and large transducers and product engineering to be ahead of the game of technological advancements in the emerging audio products market.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The incredible story of Mangesh Survase, the runaway barber who now earns Rs 40 lakh a year

It was almost as if Mangesh Survase had his fate etched in stone even before he was born. As a misfit child in a modest family of barbers in Barshi, a small hamlet in Maharashtra, he would have been a slave to circumstances had he lacked the audacity to chase his dreams. The family business was a modest barber shop owned and run by his father, earning the household Rs 400 a month. And his father had dreamed his dreams for him — that Mangesh would someday make it big, albeit in their business. It was against this backdrop that thiscollege-dropout-turned-runaway-rebel turned a Rs 600 saving into Rs 40 lakh in revenue.

Country roads, leading away from homes
For 27-year-old Mangesh Survase, then a spirited teenager, these scripted routes to what seemed like a predestined aim weren’t palatable. Thus, he found himself constantly skirting the norms — ending up at the end of the cane for his poor academic aptitude, and falling into “bad company” that distracted him further until he dropped out of college in the 12th grade.

His father took one last swing at laying down the law by compelling Mangesh to work at their barber shop, considering that all able hands needed to be employed in order to survive the financial abyss the family was staring into. However, this move didn’t sit well with the stubborn visionary. Naturally unmotivated, it wasn’t long before his father dismissed him, not only from the business, but also from their lives.

Bittersweet goodbyes

Dejected yet oddly liberated, Mangesh left Barshi behind and meandered over to Pune, a whole 200 km away from all that was familiar to him. “My uncle came through, to prevent me from hitting rock bottom. He too was a barber — but this time, I had a plan,” says Mangesh.

To earn his daily livelihood, he spent his entire day in his uncle’s shop as an errand boy, scrubbing floors and washing clothes for 17 hours and Rs 20 a day. But when you’re sprawled on the floor, there’s nowhere else to look but up, quite literally in this case, as Mangesh picked up the basic techniques of hair cutting by observing his owner. It was in his blood, and he knew he was interested the more he observed. "I wanted to pursue this newfound interest further, so I decided to get some formal training,” he says.

Tasting blood

With the Rs 15,000 he had saved, he looked westward to the Mumbai life that beckoned. He decided to learn advanced hair cutting techniques at Javed Habib’s Hair Salon Academy in Mumbai, and aced a three-month programme in a month and a half. He also worked part-time at various hair salons in Mumbai, earning Rs 20,000 a month to sustain a life in maximum city, but even his rigorous hair-cutting wouldn’t quite cut it. So, during the daytime, he would learn the tricks of the trade in the academy, and come nightfall, he would rough it out in a friend’s garage to save the cost of accommodation.

His passion did not go unnoticed. Not only was he absorbed into the academy for a full-time job, he was also selected for Tony & Guy’s Singapore-based advanced hair-dressing programme, effectively clocking seven years in the hair-dressing industry. But his stint taught him more than just the skill required for hairdressing — he also came to learn the value in it. “Coming from a small town where most hairdressing salons were under tamarind trees, I learnt that this industry can also have a dignified life. With the posh outdoors at all my employers and institutes, I knew that I could become a successful hairdresser and also redeem the reputation of this profession. That sparked the entrepreneurial streak in me,” he recalls.

Taking one for the team

Coming from an economically modest background, this decision to start his own enterprise and create his own brand was a major one, and by no means easy, he adds. Piecing together all his savings, some money borrowed from his father, and finally, a loan from BYST Pune, he cut the ribbon for Mangeshaz Unisex Salon and Academy, a unisex salon that now has branches in Pune and Bhopal with five salons and academies. The company has scaled up operations employing the franchise model, employing 210 people directly and indirectly.

Apart from expansion, Mangesh had one more mission in mind. Looking back at the simple folk of his village who had never had access to world-class services, Mangesh made sure his plush space stocked with the best brands and highly trained staff was made uber-affordable.
Mangesh’s magic sauce

It is difficult to determine whether it was this noble thought, the fact that he offered quick service, or his norm of chatting up everyone that walked through his door that led to his revenues recording a consistent 2x growth since starting up in 2013. He clocked Rs 20 lakh in his first year, which doubled the year after. This year, he is on course to clock Rs 80 lakh.

“My academy provides scientific and systematic training to the aspirants wishing to pursue a career in cosmetology. So far, the academy has enabled hundreds of students to succeed in the profession of cosmetology and become successful entrepreneurs and professionals,” says Mangesh. 1,200 people have been trained at his academy, out of which nearly a thousand have got jobs and 200 have started their own salons.

He also sends his staff to Mumbai to attend workshops to enhance their skills. He vividly remembers his housekeeping days, which is why he provides lunch and dinner to all his employees, as well as incentives when they hit targets.
Up, up, and above

He plans to open 22 branches all over Maharashtra by December 2016. He has collaborated with the US Brand Santhi's for his hair studio, and is planning to open one branch in the US in the next two years.

Besides, his commitment towards society is heartening. A staunch believer in giving back, he is especially passionate about guiding the youth so that they don’t go down the same road he did. “Remembering my own struggle during my early days, I guide the youth through extremely low-cost haircuts and hair treatments for courses at my academy,” he says.

Till today, he has organised many free training sessions for haircuts and hair treatment for orphaned teenagers in Barshi, to make them self-reliant. He will also be organising complimentary seminars on hair cutting for women as he wishes to empower the community. He has also started sharing his experience on various forums to potential entrepreneurs and motivates them to start their own business.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Why this professional chose to join a family-owned organisation and not an MNC or startup

Fresh out of college and looking to rocket-launch their career, thousands of starry-eyed graduates and post-graduates aspire to join the big names – be it conglomerates with offices around the globe, or the lean and mean startups that are paradoxically giants in their own way. In this mad rush to climb the corporate ladder, there is one segment that is shunned by most – the family business. Derogatorily called baniya companies, these organisations are somehow not seen as aspirational brands to work with.

If Swati Singh, Global Head of Business Strategies at Rational Business Corporation, has her way, though, this status quo will change soon. Swati lives in Frankfurt, Germany and is set to move back to India and take over as COO of her organisation (a family-owned business with an annual revenue of 250 crore) in December this year. Rational manufactures and supplies a range of paper products and office stationery as well as computer hardware and peripherals, to clients like Amazon, Snapdeal, Fedex, Indigo, Spicejet, McDonalds, Bluedart,Flipkart and PVR in Asia, Europe and a few African countries.

Twenty-eight-year-old Swati says it still surprises people that she chose to join a family-owned organisation. It could be because of the positivity that she sensed during her first interaction with Rational CEO and fourth-generation scion of the family, Ashish Gupta, in 2014, she herself had no qualms joining the organisation. But attracting quality talent is a different ballgame altogether. She explains, “It has been a huge struggle to hire good resources. There is this huge mindblock that stops people, especially women, from joining family-run organisations.”
Clearing misconceptions – SMEs and Mittelstand

India has a rich history of SMEs and that too family-owned organisations. According to Swati, there certainly is scope for changes in their work culture but the management of these organisations are also not as narrow as people fear.

The positive changes brought in by the youngest generation of many of these businesses include:
Taking in outsiders in CXO positions rather than sticking only to family members.
A startup style of working as they are adapting new trends of working and experimenting a lot.
Improving on their diversity ratio with more female hires and better work policies and facilities aimed at women employees.

In Rational, for instance, when more female resources joined the firm, Swati’s suggestions for making the workplace women-friendly were incorporated – from better restroom facilities for women to ensuring safety through cabs with GPS. Swati says, “Often the issue is that the management has not thought of these things, but when the requirements are expressed, they swing into action. So all that is required most of the times is to just ask! If we have more number of women staff in the future, we are open to providing facilities like a crèche to ensure that women are motivated to continue working with us long term.”

The women employees at Rational
Since Swati has been living in Germany for the past few years, she has experienced first-hand the stark difference in mindsets, when compared to India. Family-owned SMEs, known as Mittelstand in German, are very aspirational places to work at and are described in an adulatory way as the backbone of one of the world’s largest economies.

Student, workaholic, wife – the various shades of Swati

Swati hails from Meerut and will soon complete her MBA degree from Mannheim School of Business. The reason she could pursue her course along with her work was because of the complete support from her boss. She says, “He is not just my boss but also a friend and mentor. He believes in his resources and gives them adequate space to learn and build themselves.”

Swati’s husband works in Frankfurt currently and will be moving back to India due to the new profile that Swati is set to take up. She says, “He is the reason behind my success. It´s his motivation and support that keeps me going.” When quizzed about her interests beyond work, she has to think for far too long, though she is quick to assure me that she is not a workaholic. But would her husband describe her as a workaholic, I persist, and she answers sheepishly, “I guess he would!”

Swati’s advice to all working women would be,Be courageous, always have your own viewpoint and stick to it, fight for it no matter if it's your professional or personal life. Make your own space.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Building a socially-conscious food company from the ground up: the Happy Roots story

India, the land of diversity, is also a land of opportunity. Our ancestors harnessed the largesse of Mother Nature and earned sweet rewards, considering the range of crops and vegetables India grew. More than 10,000 varieties of rice grew without the intervention of genetic modification! With increased experimentation and the race towards standardisation, we are quickly moving towards an uncomfortable situation where the knowledge of past centuries is being lost without being made constructive use of. It’s hard to see the grander scheme of things but when we speak of food and technology, initiatives that stand for indigenous knowledge and organic growth should get a voice in the ecosystem.
Reema Sathe, HappyRoots
Happy Roots, started by Reema Sathe from Pune, is one such initiative. In this modern context, where urban lives are increasingly getting disconnected from the roots, it is important to provide an option that is building processes from the ground up. Happy Roots is a young company that makes socially-conscious food. In Reema’s words: “We manufacture and market natural, healthy snack food which is not only good for our consumers but generates sustainable employment and incomes for rural communities in Maharashtra.”

After working for seven years in the food and beverage industry, there came a point in Reema’s career where she had an inner calling to work for and with the rural communities. “I had no clue as to what exactly I would do, but then an opportunity came through a startup to work with tribal farmers in South Gujarat. I quit my corporate job and joined the project. It just felt right,” says Reema.

Starting up Happy Roots

Over next 18 months of her work with farmers in Gujarat and Maharashtra, she got a sense of what was going wrong with small-scale food processing units, run by farmers and rural women. “These micro-enterprises are a hope for our small farmers to earn better incomes and find sustainable livelihood to offset risks associated with farming. Lack of marketing skills and product knowledge to match up to the rapidly changing consumer preferences (in urban markets), has forced a lot of these micro-enterprises to shut down or operate on losses,” says Reema. At the same time, through their market research in Pune and Mumbai, Happy Roots found out that there is a rising demand for healthy and preservative-free, ready-to-eat food. “The demand and supply gap was clear and I found a social problem which I felt passionate about to solve,” says Reema.

Farmer producers at a company meeting
Farmer in Maliv village
Products and the response

Happy Roots is focussed on making healthy and natural snack food that is free from preservatives, refined flours and additives. Their products include whole grain cookies, crackers and fresh dips that are made using farm-fresh produce and grains sourced directly from farmers and are handmade by trained rural women’s groups. “We believe microbial fermentation to be the best food technology, which is highly undervalued, to make modern food products. We plan to enter the fermented beverage market next year,” says Reema. Intervening at the root level and building a product gives Happy Roots a degree of control over the entire process and quality which will help them in making a sustainable business.

It took Happy Roots 6,000 man hours and 60 product trials to come up with their first four products. “We launched our products in August 2016 in Pune. Since then we have received tremendous response from our customers. In two months, we have sold 160 units and 25kg of our product. We have an exclusive health & wellness brand partnership with Faasos in Pune,” says Reema. The company ships their products across the country via online retail partner The gourmet food company, and is associating with some coffee shops and bistros in Pune. For corporates, Happy Roots has a snack vending model and has just completed a successful pilot.

Snack kit (on-the-go pack)
One of the products: Yogurt and herb dip

Happy Roots’ value chain is transparent and involves 50 percent of rural communities in its operations. They currently have a network of 10,000 farmers (directly and indirectly) across Vidarbha, Pune, Ahmednagar district and Kolhapur. The company also partners with local non-profits and some key State government bodies. “We source all the raw material from the farmers (except a few commodities like oil, salt, sugar) and pay them higher than market rates because of which our farmers ensure that we get the best quality grains,” says Reema.

Millets, wheat, indigenous brown rice and dairy are the main raw materials at the moment. Happy Roots is also working with Lokpanchayat (a local non-profit) on a CEE (Centre for Environment Education) run project to protect local biodiversity. The idea is to generate market for endangered Indian grains that are on the verge of going extinct, as they are no longer part of the urban consumer basket (see how this man in rural Uttarakhand has dedicated his life to preserving seeds). Under this project, buckwheat is being revived in the tribal areas of Shayadri hills. “I am proud to share that our first harvest of 1,000kg will be available end of October. We are launching an exclusive buckwheat snack, post Diwali,” shares Reema. Happy Roots started out by using plastic packaging for their products but is now moving to a fresh new, eco-friendly packaging.

Team and the way forward

HappyRoots team
Happy Roots is a small team of four- Kanak, the operations lead, has worked on a rice intensification programme with tribal farmers in Odisha at IIM-A. She has also managed several livelihood programmes with NABARD and WOTR. Prajkta is their product development lead and has been a chef and owner of a catering business in US and Pune. Devstotra is their food tech advisor and has a PhD in microbial fermentation and naturally functional foods from Massey University, New Zealand. "Together, we bring in expertise in rural linkages, marketing & operations, food technology & product development,” says Reema.

Happy Roots has developed a strong product pipeline and has a roadmap ready for next 12 months. Educating the consumer is a big thing on the agenda for Happy Roots and they’ll also be looking to raise funds to fuel growth now that the product line is ready.

There are many organisationsthat are being set up that focus on the complete value chain and focus on building sustainable businesses. The likes of Fab India began with this ethos, and scale dilutes things to some extent but the spurt of new smaller setups keeps the heart going. Someone like Earth Loaf, which focusses on making chocolate, or folks like Korra Jeans and Charaka when it comes to fabric, are building conscious businesses. Happy Roots is making food with love and the growth of such companies will in effect bring down the rates and make conscious food more accessible.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Kargil and Kashmir war hero Deepchand Prakhyat lost two legs and one hand, but is the most optimistic person you will read about today

Sadaiva sainika pudhech jaayche, na maguti tuva kadhi firayche, daha dishatun tufan vhayche, sadaiva sainika pudhech jaayche…

(Soldiers must always march forward, never looking back or turning around in their paths. Come hail or storm from all ten directions, a soldier must only march forward.)

Most children of Maharashtrain soil, who are inherently valorous and patriotic like the Maratha warriors, have only grown up humming this couplet; but Deepchand Prakhyat lives it. Many soldiers who fight for the country lay down their lives and become martyrs, and multitudes more sustain permanent, often life-altering, injuries- but becoming disabled in combat is a matter of immense pride for most jawans.

However, having near-death experiences while doing extraordinary work in the greatest wars of the past three decades, and then becoming disabled in an accident is a sorrowful tale for any soldier, and only a few tell it with a renewed zest for life. Fighting enemies of the state, death and destiny with equal obstinacy, war veteran Deepchand Prakhyat’s spirited narration will leave you in awe.

His roots

Hailing from Hissar in Haryana, Deepchand Prakhyat came to Maharashtra for his military training. He started as a brave gunner in the 1989 Light Regiment. After procuring his army medal in 1989, he was posted to a part of Kashmir, where General G. K. Mehendiratta was in command.

In his decades of service, he fought in the Kargil war and also went undercover in the Lashkar district of Kashmir to carry out several risky operations. Even today, there is patriotism, kindness and undying loyalty to his army days in all his words. Deepchand insists that his work can only be testified to by his past commanding officers, as it becomes evident in the course of the interview that the hero is too modest to speak of his own feats. So, we get in touch with Colonel A. K. Mehendiratta.
In the line of fire

During the insurgency and terror threat in Kashmir in 1998, Deepchand’s regiment was stationed in a small post near Gulmarg. Colonel A.K. Mehndiratta tells us that a soldier like Deepchand was rare to find, and this thought was echoed every so often by the soldiers in the regiment. At that time, Deepchand was deployed by the Army intelligence as an undercover agent, living among Kashmiri locals, along with five or six of his colleagues – with the risk and responsibility of discovering the hiding places of terrorists upon their shoulders –Deepchand being the acting chief of the group.

No allowed to carry weapons, Deepchand ended up learning everything from the local language to the Kashmiri way of life in that six month period. It was after relentless surveillance that he and his team submitted a report stating that there was terrorist activity in a small village of 50-60 houses called Dargam.

His information turned out to be accurate. Knowing that the army was active at night, terrorist groups operated during the day. With the help of Deepchand’s quality intel, a plan was devised. As per the plan, commandos in disguise - including Deepchand - surrounded the house. But the terrorists in the building were alerted to the army’s presence by women living on the ground floor of the building. A firefight ensued, after which the building was laid siege to by the jawans.

Forbidding anyone from entering or leaving the house, the firing continued all day and into the night. By morning, they managed to kill both the terrorists, but one of our men was sacrificed too, and another officer was injured. Operation Dargaam was widely hailed by the media.

“In our two years there, we managed to make that area completely terror-free, simply because of courageous soldiers like Deepchand,” says the General. Because his men were scattered intelligently across locations, terrorist operations in 50 villages within 40 were cracked down upon with ease.

In the eye of the storm

Deepchand’s regiment also had a part to play in the victory at Kargil. Stationed at the border around May 1999, they were armed with 120 MM motors that could fire as far 8 km into enemy territories, with enemy troops similarly being able to attack deep within Indian territory. Deepchand also commanded that operation, and fired over 15,000 bullets. His sole job was to target and destroy the ammunition of the enemy.

Soon came the vicious attack on the Parliament building, creating a tense war-like situation. Deepchand’s regiment was posted to Rajasthan at the time. With no sleep for days and nights on end, his regiment was on ‘standby’ mode constantly, ready to be deployed to fight at Pokhran as soon as insurgencies surfaced, but the matter was being resolved through dialogue. That was when the fateful incident transpired.

They were just in the process of packing up their belongings from Barmer after the situation subsided when there was a misfire and one of the canons exploded, injuring three men. Amongst them, was Deepchand.

Colonel Mehndiratta gets a little choked up at this point. “The soldier that fought bravely and escaped death in Kargil and Kashmir got brutally injured in a blast like this. It was so serious that doctors had told us that there was almost no chance that he would wake up and recover,” says the Colonel. “But I told the doctor to revive him at any cost. That was when he informed me that Deepchand had lost a lot of blood, and that they would have to amputate both his legs and one of his hands. Even then, there was no guarantee that he would survive the ordeal. I was prepared for the worst,” says the Colonel.

Still some fight left in him

The operation began at 4 am, and Deepchand regained consciousness only on the next day. 17 bottles of blood, and the prayers of all the comrades he had entertained through singing, dancing and making merry while they were out at war before the era of the TV, he says, are what got him through the risky surgery.

“Both legs gone, one hand lost, and yet, Deepchand didn’t once rue his situation,” says the Colonel, adding, “In fact, when he regained consciousness, he was reassuring me that everything would be all right, instead of it being the other way around! There are very few men as brave as him.”

“When I found out that I had lost my limbs, I did not once think about myself. I was only concerned about my wife and my one-year-old son. When my wife came to see us, I’d cover up with a pillow or a blanket, because I did not want to put her through the trauma,” recalls Deepchand.

We ask him if he received any aid from the Indian government post the accident. His answer to this question was short and heartbreaking- “This did not happen at war, you see.”

Count your blessings

Faced with his new reality, he never once wallowed in pity or hatred – he knew that he would be able to survive this last and ultimate challenge with acceptance and optimism. And sure enough, today, he is living his life in an absolutely self-dependent manner.

“At the hospital, there were hundreds of injured soldiers with me, many of whom were alive, but almost like lifeless corpses. Some couldn’t even get up without support, and one colleague even lost his eyes. I was the most fortunate of them all, in that I learnt to stand and walk without both legs. If you want to truly understand your blessings, look at those less fortunate than you. You will never learn such philosophies about life from a guru – these learnings come from a human being who has truly lived,” he says.

His children are in school, while his wife now has a government job, which she procured with great difficulty. Unlike other people with his condition, he has trained himself to get around without a wheelchair. Relocated now to Maharashtra, he lives in the township of Devlali in Maharashtra’s Nashik district, a retirement haven of choice for many officers.

Soon, his second son came along, and life’s greater joys made sure he always counted his blessings, and never his sorrows. A true mark of his independence is that rather than relying on others for help, he in fact puts his own abilities to full use and contributes fully to all the chores of the household.

The survivor

Eventually, he even started his own provision store, in order to send his two sons to medical school someday – for this proud man has refused to accept help from anyone, to this date. “I have fought from the jaws of death, and all the credit goes to my doctor. So, of course, I would be immensely happy when my son becomes one!” he says.

In his provision store, he also provides the services of bus and train ticket bookings, air travel booking, mobile recharge, jeevan bema premiums and all kinds of payments. His wife and children also join him at the store and assist with his work in the evening, which is something that he heartily cherishes.

Today, all the officers that once fought alongside him avoid visiting him even if they are in his town. His own wife’s family sometimes looks down upon his disabilities, but he says he is still a lucky man, for he gets to live with his wife and kids. “What else do I need?” he says.

As if fate hadn’t piled enough adversities on his path, two years ago, a fire at his store caused losses of nearly Rs 3-4 lakh. But this braveheart was never deterred. He dusted himself off, stood up straight again, and started over aggressively and enthusiastically, saluting life. Deepchand certainly serves to create a mental image that all of us can fall back on when life flings anything at us that we think we can’t handle.

Friday, 14 October 2016

How Pooja Kumar lost 25 kg in 25 weeks and is now helping others get fit with JogoApp

For many out there, losing weight is a life-long battle. Thus, when you hear of someone who has lost 25 kg in 25 weeks, it gives you hope. That is what Pooja Kumar did. She lost 25kg in 25 weeks. That’s not all, she went on to help others like her who have been struggling to lose weight. She founded JogoApp that helps you lose weight while having fun at the same time.

So Pooja sees the corporate wellness market as an important space for them to leverage. They have so far partnered with players like ‘Running and Living’, and JogoApp is the running partner for their upcoming marathons in multiple cities.

Revenue model

While it is still at an early stage, JogoApp aims to earn revenues through multiple streams from their product marketplace and the monetisationof their ‘Challenge’ feature for large enterprises. Pooja noted that while regular users can post open challenges to their peers, the reach is currently restricted. Enterprises that tie up with them, on the other hand, can post private challenges for all their employees and encourage them to stay fit.Pooja said,

Corporates can create private challengesand encourage employees to participate by contributing proceeds from the initiative to a noble cause that employees care about. Apart from the intrinsic benefits, this helps with team building.

Jogo is also in talks with insurance companies to leverage the fitness data that they are able to track from users (with their permission). On the consumer side, JogoApp aims to be a product discovery marketplace for individuals to stay up to date about the market.
Sector overview

A recent report notes that a sedentary lifestyle is one of the leading causes of illness in India, affecting about 70,000 youngsters in the country. The report also noted that India is now the diabetes capital of the world, with an estimated 67 million out of the 422 million global diabetes patients residing in India. Preventive healthcare is a big market in India, and there are many startups that are trying to get Indians to lead healthier lives.

Micromax backed Healthifyme is a popular calorie counter and digital fitness coach. Other interesting players in this space include Vishal Gondal’s GOQii, Delhi-based FitSo and Mukesh Bansal and Ankit Nagori’s yet to be launched- Curefit.
Future plans

So far, Jogo has been relying on both online and offline marketing channels to get users onboard. Pooja noted that almost all of their current userbase has been acquired organically. While a majority of the userbase is from India, Pooja notes that they currently see around five percent of global users active on their platform as well.

While JogoApp had raised an undisclosed round of angel funding from Ravi Srivastava’s Purvi Capital in 2015, the startup aims to raise a larger funding round in the coming months to help them accelerate the pace at which they onboard partners, service providers and curate products.

Pooja noted that the feedback has been fairly positive, with users liking the in-app step tracker and gamification features like leaderboards and challenges. Going forward, Pooja aims to grow the platform and reach 100,000 users in the next six months to create a vibrant social network of fitness enthusiasts.

JogoApp team
The backstory

JogoApp (initially called TheNewU) was inspired by Pooja’s own decade-long struggle with weight. After giving birth to two babies, she found that she was unable to get rid of the post- pregnancy weight. Pooja thought that weight loss was the most mind boggling, illogical endeavor where one needed ‘magic skills’ to succeed.

After going through a lot of resources like Jane Fonda’s Pregnancy, Birth & Recovery for pre & post natal DVD, among others, Pooja realised that weight loss was a science and went on a path of self-discovery.

She adopted an ‘ERER’ philosophy, which is – for Eat Right, Exercise Right and started supplementing her diet with healthy alternatives wherever possible such as opting for jaggery instead of sugar and brown rice over regular rice.

As a new mother, she looked at everyday opportunities with her baby as a means to exercise — starting out with walking baby in a pram, rocking the baby to sleep in a cradle. Pooja said,

If the baby wanted to be hugged during the walk, I would use the baby carrier. This helped me work on my strength and cardio. Rocking the baby to sleep in a cradle involved a combination of strength, oblique’s and cardio combined!

After her baby was old enough and didn’t need constant attention, Pooja decided to take up more active forms of exercises like Zumba and running, to speed up the process. She found that Zumba worked best for her as she loved dancing. Also the endorphins helped her be high on energy pre, during, and post the sessions.

Pooja also took up running. She started out with the goal of running 5km at a stretch and setout a four-week plan. She then went after bigger challenges like 10km and 21km marathons. To ensure she was getting the right nutrition, Pooja opted for a 1050-calorie weight loss diet plan to monitor her food intake. While she was getting fitter, Pooja noted that her stomach area which obviously was most affected by the pregnancy, wasn’t progressing as quickly.

She realised that trouble zones needed intensive efforts that are disproportionate in terms of effort and time to see results. So she worked on specific ab exercises and started seeing results. By the end of 25 weeks, she found that she had lost 25 kilos.

Pooja Kumar
Through her weight loss process, Pooja realised that she had gained valuable insights about fitness. So she launched a website, a fitness community and a Youtube channel to share tips based on what worked for her. It was at this stage that it dawned on her that there was a large potential market for a business, along with the opportunity to create a big impact on people’s lives.

Starting up

Founded in June 2015, JogoApp is a gamified health and fitness mobile app platform. Pooja turned entrepreneur to start up her own venture after working in leadership positions in leading startups like Ujjivan andEko and well established companies like American Express. For the initial few months after their launch, JogoApp constantly interacted with its beta users to gather feedback and rolled out over four updates in one month.

The venture currently consists of a seven member team, with five focusing on the product and two focusing on sales, marketing and other responsibilities. Pooja believes in losing weight in a structured and natural manner through a combination of superfoods, effective workouts and also ‘cheat days’, which allow one’s body to recover.

Pooja noted that they have got good feedback from users and also got recognition from the startup ecosystem. In March 2016, the startup rebranded from TheNewU to JogoApp, where Jogo in Portugese means ‘play’ or ‘sport’. Pooja said,

We were recently shortlisted as one of the top 10 startups of 2016 by Conquest, and have been in the Top 50 for multiple contests over the past four months, includingTiE the Knot, Tech Rocketship, Start Tel-Avivand Mindbatteries.

How JogoApp works
Positioned as a gamified one-stop health, fitness and wellness app, JogoApp allows users to earn SweetSweats (reward points) for being active, and then redeem those as discounts against goods and services. Users can either rely on the in-app Jogo tracker or integrate a third party fitness tracker(like fitbit) to ‘auto-track’ their activity. Data gathered on the calories burned gets converted into SweetSweats. Pooja said,

Jogo encourages users to enter a (good)vicious cycle of exercising and redeeming products that are good for you. We currently have over one lakh products curated across 10 product categories and 1,000 entities offering fitness-related services.

Some other interesting features of the app include :

Challenges and Leaderboard- Users can join challenges and invite onboard their friends, family or peer groups,and watch the groups' progress on a live leaderboard.

Create ‘Fitfies’- Another gamification feature, users can take fitness-selfies(Fitfies) of their fitness and transformation stories to encourage others and also earn bonus SweetSweats. Recommendations- Users are encouraged to voice their opinions, contribute to the community and make their opinion count.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

This techie started a buzzing hotline for the 33 lakh cancer patients in India

Cancer can be a traumatic time for the patient as well as their loved ones. And at a time like this, every worry or apprehension – right from choosing a course of treatment to loving your body as it undergoes a whirlwind of change – is equally valid and must be harmonised in order to overcome the tribulation, rather than just survive it. Sonali Srungaram, a techie who had always nursed a ‘what if’ for the field of medicine, decided it was never too late to return to her passion for the greater good of the 33 lakh cancer patients in the country.
On the other side of the phone…
Sonali Srungaram, 37, holds a B. Tech (Honours) in Computer Systems Engineering from Massey University in New Zealand, and a Post Graduate diploma at ISB. She jumped straight into a 12-year stint at Accenture,after her BTech, as a consultant for transformational projects for large multi-national corporations – working out of three home offices in three countries (New Zealand, India and UK)‑and eventually became an associate partner in their strategy consulting.

Her job was fulfilling, but she wanted to create something of her own. “I had started fleshing out ideas for my own firm as early as 2006, but never had the courage to quit. Finally in 2012, when the Indian entrepreneurial market was picking up, I told myself it was now or never,” she explains.

In her mind, whenever she thought entrepreneurship, she thought healthcare. “This was in a way a reconciliation, since I always doubted if I made the right choice by becoming an engineer instead of taking up medicine,” she says, adding,“and this was backed by my research. I noticed that most models were focussed on healthcare providers than patients. I felt that something had to be done for patients.”

A glaring gap

Around the same time, one of her close kin was diagnosed with cancer and she noticed how fragmented the market was with respect to cancer-care.“I saw that though the doctors noticed symptoms, they constantly misdiagnosed the condition. So, I decided to work in the space of creating awareness and cancer prevention.”

This was the genesis of CIPHER Healthcare, in 2012. They first started by visiting MNCs for awareness drives. In six months, they accomplished 33 awareness sessions,which put them on the radar for around 50,000 people. “We even spoke to over 3,000 people on a one-on-one basis and assisted in the preventive screening of over 500 people,” she recalls.

During one such screening, they noticed that one of their subjects was in fact, testing positive for stage II breast cancer.“At this point in time, I realised that we had to deliver this difficult news to this person, but were not in any position to offer any further help thereafter. My conscience would not allow me to leave them in the lurch like this.”

This was the defining moment in the journey of CIPHER that birthed the idea of the Cancer Helpline – something she felt was rather similar to her consulting job, where a client came with a problem or a question, and they would find personalised solutions for them.

Healed, if not cured

Their nationwide free helpline service, on 18002002676, is available for cancer patients and their relatives Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm. For all the calls received outside of these time constraints, the team mandatorily calls back as soon as possible. The doubts could range from where the nearest cancer hospital is, to where one can get a wig for a loved one undergoing treatment. After all, when the cost of treatment is nearly Rs. 2.5 lakh, everyone could use a second opinion.

For example, someone from Ranchi once called in to find what the best hospital would be for the treatment of a specific kind of cancer along with the cost, schemes available and insurance details. Some call in to understand what they can do to prevent cancer after they have newly quit smoking. Several calls also stream in from desperate family members who get very worried looking at a patient going through the side-effects of the treatment.

“The key is that each case is unique, and our job is to provide the appropriate amount of empathy and information to each individual so that they are most empowered. We have even helped callers with body-image issues, with a simple ‘you are beautiful,’” says Sonali.

Sonali’s helpers

Sonali has put together a team of 21 people who are not from the medical background, but are passionate about medicine. They then undergo rigorous training by studying the research books on cancer as well as learning how to be empathetic towards the callers. Moreover, they never give direct advice or a treatment solution; a panel of doctors has joined them on a consultancy basis, and is available for an hour for any tricky inquiries. Even while making recommendations, no single hospital is recommended. “If someone is confused about two different procedures, we give them the breakdown of both the procedures so they are in the position to make an informed decision," says Sonali.

They have two methods of revenue generation. With the first, monetising their skill-set, they help other healthcare institutions create patient-centric models. “We have created helplines for other hospitals and have helped healthcare startups figure out their footing through market research,” she explains. Having no previously established models to emulate, this was accomplished with trial and error, and on a shoestring budget.

The other model was monetising traffic – which was a little tricky since it is difficult to convince people to pay for information.

In the two years since the Cancer Helpline has been active, over two lakh people have accessed their resources and over 21,000 people have approached them for personalised help –something she is immensely proud of. “In the last few months, we have had several offers of mergers and acquisitions, which validates that what we have built is valuable,” she says.

High mortality rate for women in entrepreneurship

This might be one of those places where she was a supposed ‘outsider’, whose perspective wasn’t welcome. Not only was her passion questioned as a techie taking on a field that always had her heart, she was also doubted as a woman, taking on a man’s role of heading a company.

“It is tough for someone without a medical background to break into healthcare in India. This meant that we had to work harder to build our credibility in the industry. But, I also facedtwo-fold skepticism, as a woman entrepreneur. There are several biases out there,and a lot of people who believe that a male entrepreneur has more dedication to offer to his job, but a woman does not have the capacity for the same. These perceptions are tough to deal with. I am trying to find my way in this environment,” she candidly relates.

What keeps it going

Bootstrapped initially, she realised, over time, that there were people passionate about what she does, and hence opened the company to friends and family for a small round.“Currently, we are pushing for an angel round of funding to raise $500,000 to create the pilot and prototype for a new model we are coming up with,” she says.

This new model is the result of a small survey they conducted to understand if they met all the patients’ needs. “While they were extremely happy with our service, they still felt that they needed someone who could offer them direct support services. So, we established that the time had come for us to start providing direct services to patients instead of just connecting the dots,” she lets on.

So, the next step for Cancer Helpline is to launch the Cancer Helpline Centre to support integrative medicine. “Integrative medicine as a concept is still new in India. It is the support layer that aids in improving the success rate of the treatment while keeping in mind the emotional health of the patient and their family and friends,” she concludes.