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Friday, 30 September 2016

How a daily wage worker earning Rs 3 per day built a multi-crore real estate company

Even today, 54-year-old Tenzin Negi takes special care of his labourers and their needs. Having worked his way up from a daily wage worker himself, Tenzin knows how difficult life for a worker can actually be.

Tenzin started working as a daily wage worker when he was just 16. However, building roads and earning Rs 3 daily was not enough. Curious, helpful, and hardworking, Tenzin worked his way up. Today, he runs his own construction company worth crores.

Early days

Tenzin was born in Khorkhai village, Himachal Pradesh. His parents were Tibetan refugees who worked on daily wage and lived in a makeshift tent with no electricity or water supply. “Life was extremely difficult,” Tenzin recalls.

Tenzin remembers the days of rains and snowfall, and the fear they brought along. His parents would be building roads in risky terrains even during such weather outside. Tenzin recalls:

“Even for such risky work, finding labour work daily was a major struggle. On days my parents didn’t find work, we had to manage without food.”

Turn of fate

Fate took a turn for Tenzin’s parents when the Indian government started building camps for Tibetan refugees. Tenzin’s father was given a piece of farmland in Surguja district in Madhya Pradesh. The government also built houses for his family to help them integrate into local workforce.

Tenzin along with his elder brother and two younger sisters, started going to the local public school, while his parents worked in the field.
Back to Himachal

After living in Surjuga for eight years, Tenzin’s father decided to go back to the Himachal. Coming from an ingenious Himalayan tribe, Tenzin and his family found it hard to settle in central India. “The weather, especially summers, was unbearable,” Tenzin recalls.

This time they settled in Shimla. Tenzin, now 16, started accompanying his parents in their resumed road construction work. Tenzin’s work included levelling of roads, carrying stone and sand, and pouring tar during construction. Recalling those days, Tenzin says: “Although I was 16 years old, I was given only half the wage adults earned. My parents made Rs 6 daily, while I was working equally hard and making Rs 3 per day.”

Slow and steady

After years of hard work, thanks to his education, Tenzin was found suitable for a supervisor’s job in Shimla Municipal Corporation. He jumped to the opportunity. As a supervisor Tenzin had to manage 10-15 labourers, ensure they were adequately distributed and that they were paid on time.

Working as a supervisor, Tenzin observed how a contractor worked. He realised that he can take contracts himself and work on them. “My parents were growing old. Working as a supervisor, I could have never lifted my family out of poverty. I decided to become a contractor,” Tenzin says.

Tenzin’s first contract was of Rs 600. The bid was to perform ‘surface dressing’ on a road that was being built. Tenzin worked hard to deliver good results, and soon, he started receiving more contracts.

Although Tenzin was taking up projects, he was not registered as a contractor. This meant that the projects he received were sub-contracted to him, yielding lower profit and infrequent payment for all the hard work he was putting in. Tenzin recalls: “The contractors used to receive their cheques on time from the government, but they delayed our payments. This is when I decided to register as a contractor myself and start my own business.”

Rags to riches

Tenzin started taking small contracts, but with his reputation in quality and timeliness, he was soon a favourite among locals. Sub-contracts and labourers liked to work for him as well, as he was fair towards them.

Slowly, as his own capacity grew over time, Tenzin started taking bigger projects. In November 2000, he started a company called ‘Tenzin Construction Private Limited’.

His company soon started undertaking projects from the Himachal Pradesh government in electrical, housing, education, and healthcare sectors. He also worked on private construction projects. Tenzin recalls: “We built everything. From houses, to shops, restaurants, shopping complexes, hospitals, and schools. Our timeliness, quality, and sincerity is what brought us so far.”

What sets Tenzin apart is his willingness to give back to the society. Well-known in Shimla for his charitable work, Tenzin has built a hospital with 50 beds where the poor can receive free and affordable healthcare. The hospital was meant to be Tenzin’s house. However, after a social worker shared with him the need for an affordable hospital, Tenzin decided to use the building as a hospital instead.

At 54, Tenzin does not feel any tired. A happily married man with two sons and two daughters, Tenzin today owns a construction company with an annual turnover of Rs 25-40 crore. “I never thought I would come this far. I only worked hard and with honesty with whatever I was doing. I guess, that is the only way to attain success with satisfaction,” Tenzin says.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

How this 18-year-old Russian payment gateway CyberPlat is breaking into the Indian market

Ask anyone in the startup space, and they’ll tell you that it seems to be the age of fintech. And among the various sections of the fintech ecosystem, none has received more attention than payment gateways.

And yet, CyberPlat has been on the scene even before the term fintech existed. Possibly amongst the first electronic payment systems of Russia, the integrated multibank internet payment system was introduced in 1997 within the e-commerce department of Platina Bank, with an aim to provide IT-support for effecting cashless transactions in all financial services of the e-commerce sector, from ‘micro’ payments to interbank transactions.

Today, with offices in Russia and Mumbai, CyberPlat claims to have more than a million transactions per day. They say that they have been growing in the double digits since their entry into India, being profitable for the past four years.

Cyberplat’s first online payment was effected on March 18, 1998 for the Garant-Park Company in Moscow, and the first payment to a cellular communication operator, Beeline, was carried out on August 12, 1998.

In 2000, CyberPlat was incorporated as a separate open joint stock company. By the end of 2015, the system was processing payments made in favour of more than 4,700 service providers, including mobile and stationary communication companies, cable TV and wire-based and mobile internet providers, security alarm systems, and utility and power supply companies across virtually all regions of Russia.

CyberPlat has been in operation for 18 years and is the largest, most reliable and well-adjusted electronic payment system in Russia and the CIS countries, along with operations in Germany, Austria and India.

Due to constant upgrading of its technological platform, the CyberPlat payment system is currently capable of processing more than 1,400 financial transactions per second.

Breaking into the India market

“Today, when I look at India, I believe that, like Russia, India too is on the cusp of a payment boom and both have a similar financial legacy. The regulatory policies in both the countries are conducive for a robust growth in the sector,” says Alok Jha, MD, CyberPlat India.

When the team set up CyberPlat in Mumbai in 2009, India, they say, was experiencing and enjoying the growth of the internet and there was an upsurge in its users. Alok adds that it was the perfect time for the team to enter the country.

CEO and Founder of CyberPlat says: India seemed liked the right place for CyberPlat as the economy and the market place was conducive for the growth of Payment aggregators like us. Having a leadership position in CIS countries, Austria and Germany, India was a natural choice. Even from a legacy perspective, Russia and India have shared a healthy economic relationship. We are very aggressive in our growth plans for India and would want to become the number one payment aggregator in the country.

However, building the organisation from the ground up and staying profitable was a challenge as there were already established players in the market, resulting in CyberPlat having to jostle for place in an established market in which they were the last entrants.

“But this did not deter us, and we focused on offering the right products to our clients at the best price. We remained consistent with our core business proposition and grew business by building strong, trust-worthy relationships. We believe in being the growth partners of our clients and keep introducing new products to meet their requirements. We also offer customised and tailored solutions to befit their business model,” says Alok.

Bringing in a differentiator
CyberPlat in India differentiates itself from competition by way of service, technology robustness and a wide range of products. The team adds that they offer a secure and reliable platform with a 2048 bit electronic digital signature encryption facility, ensuring a high degree of security for transactions.

Alok adds that their disaster management services, among other facilities, make them the preferred partner for top telecom providers, DTH providers and utility service providers. “We are a technology-oriented company offering a wide range of products and services to choose from,” says Alok.

In India, the team considers Oxigen and Euronet Worldwide as their competitors. Both these players started from the B2B space and eventually forayed into the consumer space, while CyberPlat continues to serve the business requirements in the B2B space.

Being a multi-category service provider, the team claims their core strength is the aggregation of consumer payment products, a wide distribution network and the enabling of micro flexible top-ups. “Further, we enable channel partners with this set of payment products across wide variety of verticals. We also enable networks that are not tech savvy to modernise themselves (especially the SME industry) with our web and mobile-based white label solutions,” says Alok.

The team claims to have partnered with over 300 B2B and B2C clients across retail, e-commerce and mobile applications. CyberPlat also helps new partners with a single platform for various digital payment products, enabling their businesses to function faster.
The exploding payment gateway market

The market for online payments is growing rapidly in India, and Harshil Mathur, Co-founder of the payment gateway Razorpay, estimates that the market has grown by 50 percent over the course of the last year. With a lot of startups coming up in India, the need for payment gateway solutions is bound to surge. He pegs the market size of the sector to be around $54 billion in India.

Globally, Stripe is a major player in the payment gateway space, having raised $280 million, along with making two acquisitions. Currently, Razorpay directly competes with players such as PayU and Citrus Pay, which was acquired by PayU. Instamojo is also a player in this space, but focuses more on individual payments.

Payments have become synonymous with fintech. It was one of the first segments where startups began to grow and disrupt the way people transacted, and it was also among the early regulated players. The second highest funded space, this year there have already been nine deals. The total amount of funding made between last and this year is $866 million.

“With the United Payments Interface (UPI) and IndiaStack coming in, the flow of money will be easier and product development simpler. There is inclusion at the bottom level, and at the top levels, the regulator is opening the ecosystem, making it easier for startups to bring in technology,” says Harshil.

With the fight in the payment space getting heated, mergers and acquisitions or alliances seem like an outlet to beat competition and stay ahead of the game.

Staying ahead of the curve

The CyberPlat team believes that the payments landscape in India is at a point of inflexion. Alok adds that with intense competition and strategic collaboration among market participants, the lowering of the costs of banking and underserved and unbanked consumers beginning to find utility in formal financial services, the opportunity will be immense.

He believes that the players in the new payments ecosystem will supplement as well as ride the wave of smartphones, internet penetration and recent policy initiatives like Jan Dhan, Aadhaar and Digital India to find creative ways to deal with each other in the new marketplace.

The team claims that CyberPlat is growing at 100 percent year-on-year. “We will soon open our second office in India in New Delhi and expand our team strength. We will also be introducing new innovative products and services this year, along with adding new partners in the multi-category businesses to increase our footprint,” says Alok.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

What we learnt while raising capital for Treebo Hotels in a peak and in a trough

If you have interacted with anyone in the startup ecosystem in the last 9-12 months, chances are it would have taken only a few minutes for your conversation to drift towards the gloomy investment climate. And, of course, there is no smoke without fire. Aggregate startup funding did dry up significantly this year. A recent YourStory analysis revealed a 40-percent drop in the capital invested in Indian startups between H1 2015 and H1 2016.

We at Treebo Hotels raised our Series-A round in June 2015, when investor confidence and feel-good about India was at its peak. And boy, was it anything but a super quick raise, or, dare we say, a relatively easy one. Towards the beginning of this year, however, when we hit the road to raise our Series-B round, we found ourselves bang in the middle of the proverbial nuclear winter. With the heady days of 2014-15 behind us, the normal contours and considerations of raising capital were now at play. By the time we closed our round in July, having seen these contrasting environments, we had gathered some valuable learnings regarding fundraising, which we thought we’d share through this article. We’d talk about the four questions – a) how much to raise, b) when to raise, c) who to raise from, and d) how to run the process.

How much to raise

Unfortunately, given the somewhat misplaced sense of pride associated with raising capital, this question often gets only a frivolous answer. And that is, “as much as you can”. Instead, having a fact-based, well-thought-through answer to this question should be the first step of the fundraising process. We found it immensely helpful to have this clarity upfront. And it prevented us from pursuing tempting but suboptimal—possibly even damaging—outcomes.

Raising too little is surely not desirable. It can, in best-case scenario, stifle your ability to make big and bold bets for the future, and, in worst-case scenario, sound the death-knell of the organisation at the slightest sign of turbulence in the market. It was for these reasons, that some of our well-wishers with experience in the startup world pushed us into raising our Series A in June 2015, soon after we decided to start up. In hindsight it was absolutely the right decision for us.

Raising too much, on the other hand, can have even more perilous consequences. A) It can murder innovation. We saw around us hyper-funded organisations developing almost a compulsive DNA of throwing money at problems rather than figuring out their viable solutions. B) It leads to unwarranted dilution of founders’ stake, thereby disturbing the critical alignment between company success and their long-term wealth creation. And c), if not justified by commensurate value creation, it can fundamentally distort a key performance metric - ROCE, or return on capital employed, which tests a company’s P&L success not just in absolute, rather against the aggregate funding raised by it.

On balance, given our requirements and the environment, we decided to plan for a 15-18-month runway with our Series-A raise, and 24-30-month runway with our Series B. The ‘runway’ metric is key. Raising a large amount to secure the business for a longer period in a difficult investment climate makes sense. Raising a large amount to spend more on business just because you can does not. Business should dictate capital raised. Not the other way around.

When to raise

Fundraising is sometimes thought of as a periodic activity, where you announce to the investor world at large that you are raising money and that’s how interest and eventually capital is secured. We initially thought so too. But we soon realised that while this may sometimes happen at very early stages of a venture, fundraising is usually a continuous process with a combination of ‘inbound’ and outreach. This is increasingly true in today’s saner investment climate where investors like to evaluate companies (and therefore, teams) over a longer period of time.

Great investors are looking to have these conversations and do not wait for a formal fundraising process to begin because it is already too late for them to start engaging if the company is a potential winner. Over the last 15 months since we launched, we have regularly been in conversations—introductory to exploratory to late stage—with investors.

However, the final decision on the fundraise should also depend upon whether the company is ready to take in the said amount of capital. Equity capital needs to be thought of not as a privilege but as a responsibility. Raising too early without significant value creation can be very harmful. It often leads to companies chasing the wrong goals, eg., a very early-stage company focussing on growth to justify its valuation vs. chasing product market fit.

Who to raise from

Assuming one does have the choice, there are many answers to this one depending upon whom you ask, from “the first one over the line” to “whoever is paying the highest price” to “the one with the largest cheque” and so on. In our limited experience, this is not the right path to go down. Choosing the right investor is as important as deciding on your company’s strategy and just like the latter, the choice of investor has many nuances.

To start with, money matters but the colour of money matters as much if not more. One needs to look at investors, especially early stage ones, as more than just the source of capital. Getting on board a high-quality, reputed investor is also the biggest signal you can send to the broader ecosystem. Even if the better quality investor comes in at a lower valuation, it is totally worth considering.

Second, one needs to find the best investor, not in general but for one’s own specific company. So you should be asking the question “What do we really need help on?”. Depending upon the team’s skillset and the space you are in, the answer could range from product/tech to marketing to retail distribution etc. The answer to this question should influence the choice of investor. For instance, having an investor experienced in brand building was key and did influence the Series B outcome in our case.

Third, it is imperative to find a partner with whom you have complete alignment. While alignment is easy to come by when the going is good, one needs to think through how the relationship would work in difficult times when things don’t go well. Last thing an entrepreneur wants in tough times is a fundamental misalignment on key choices such as growth-experience-profitability trade-off, customer segments, new business lines etc.

In our case, one of the Series-A investors asked us when we presented our business plan during the pitch, “Why wouldn’t you do a lower scale if you must, to deliver a fantastic experience if you are really building a brand?”. We immediately knew that this partnership would work well.

Lastly, there is one additional thing to consider, and that is the topic of dirty terms. Imagine this – you have just walked out of the pitch after shaking hands and verbally agreeing to the offer. An hour later, you receive the term sheet and you eagerly examine its contents. Everything seems in order – the investment amount, dilution etc. Except it isn’t. Lurking in a corner is the ask for a superior liquidation preference (a downside protection element for the investors). To make matters worse, the anti-dilution clause looks very different from what your entrepreneur friend said it would be.

You have just been hit by what is described in the investment world as a ‘structured term sheet’. At this point, the wise thing to do would be to stay as far away from this as possible. Not the most talked about aspect of fundraising, structured term-sheets can kill you. They can dramatically tilt the payoffs and create misalignment amongst shareholders. And impact of these terms only becomes worse as you go along. As these terms get ‘unboxed’ over time, they can create situations that are completely onerous for the founders. If you have the choice, it is a no-brainer to pick a clean term-sheet over a dirty one, no matter what the valuation or size of investment is.

How to run the process

Fundraising can be quite an emotional roller-coaster, with the peaks and the troughs linked to outcomes of investor discussions. One doesn't need the fundraise process itself to become a source of anxiety. Here are a few things that we found helpful.

First, don't let the whole organisation or the whole management team or even the whole founding team become a part of the process. After all, the primary job of business is to do business, not to raise money. We heard from an investor about another startup where growth plateaued for the three months that the founders spent on raising their next round. We were careful from the beginning about not letting this happen to us. So between us, one person took the explicit responsibility of leading the process with the other one getting involved only as and when necessary.

Second, fundraise or no fundraise, keep your books, your legal contracts, your data and dashboards all in top shape and readily retrievable. Aside from being the hallmark of a good, transparent, data-backed business, this readiness of your information could be a huge asset during the fundraise process. It can help expedite the process as well as further strengthen a prospective investor's belief in the quality of team and processes set by them.

Finally, when it comes to negotiating the terms of the investment, push for granular discussion and alignment on the key terms at the term-sheet stage itself. All term sheets have an exclusivity clause that prevents companies from prospecting any other investor till the completion of the current process.

This exclusivity could leave the company stranded without options if for any reason the current process falls through. To prevent this, it is highly recommended to discuss and lock the major clauses—the ones that could lead to an impasse in the process—early on, even if it takes a little longer. Following the same approach allowed us to move from term sheet to definitive documents quickly and smoothly, without any surprises.

Aside from the specific ones above, the other overarching—and heartening—learning we had was that for good businesses, money is still available in the Indian market, and will likely always be. Investors taking long to evaluate a business can only be a good thing for a good business as it signals the making of a solid partnership foundation.

Of course, we are far from being an authority on this topic, and these learnings are not absolute. So, would love to hear about your experiences and views in the comments section.

Monday, 26 September 2016

How these students from 49 remote village schools are learning in state-of-the-art digital classrooms

The Indian government has achieved significantly in strengthening the rates of children’s enrollment to school. But, the real problem is in their learning outcomes. 85 percent of the 1.3 million schools in the country are in rural hinterlands, causing an acute shortage of good quality teachers, as well as a failure to create a confluence of cultures and exposure from the outside world, for the student. As of 2011, eVidyaloka is that nexus. A service-delivery model that aggregates passionate people across the world as volunteer teachers, eVidyaloka orchestrates sessions and lectures in schools in remote villages of India, by conjuring up a “digital classroom.

Meet the ideator
Venkat Sriraman is an engineering graduate from the class of ‘95 at BITS Pilani. A momentum that was set by his engineering degree transported him to civil engineering for three years and software, for 14 years. But, for Venkat, his plunge was a ‘smooth transition’, into an alternate career. At least, it felt like that, because he was driven by his principles coupled with his professional competencies, to create a model built on years of research. “eVidyaloka was not an aha idea, but a diligently explored and evolved model of innovation,”says42-year-old Venkat.

What is eVidyaloka?

Registered in Bengaluru in 2011 and governed by Section 12A of the Income Tax Act 1961, the eVidyaloka model brings together qualified Indian nationals currently living across 110 cities, leveraging the power of technology to enable access to high quality teachers for the children in the remotest villages and tribal zones of India. It focuses on children aged between 10 and 14 years (6th‑8th grade), delivering live interactive classes in the local medium, through a powerful partner ecosystem.

What do the kids have to look forward to?

Predominantly, the state board’s curriculum itself is being taught by the volunteer teachers, with an objective of augmenting it with rich digital content like videos, visual flows, pictures, activities, etc.

They have even engineered their own softwares to facilitate the sessions, like My eVidyaloka 3.0, which digitises the various process frameworks that are involved in the working of the sessions. They use Skype, Google Hangout for tuning the teachers in.

Who is teaching?
Over 70 percent of the volunteer teachers are qualified professionals in various fields, post-doctorates, homemakers, retired teachers, graduate students, Ph.D students and working professionals from India and abroad.

Who are the allies?

eVidyaloka values regional idiosyncrasies and leverages them by empowering the existing grass-root level organisations to work with the government schools in their villages. It is designed to be a complimentary or supplementary component to the established Government Education System. The respective authorities in the State Education Department are in the loop about the functioning and the value proposition of the programme and necessary consent is obtained, prior to the start. In regions like Giridih, Jharkhand, they received overwhelming support from the technological government institutions like NIC alongside the District Administration.

The journey

It all started with a trial, a virtual Summer camp in a village called Thenur, in Perambalur district of Tamil Nadu, in the year 2010 (April and May). The camp was put together with the Projector infra and the recently obtained BSNL broadband by the locally functioning NGO called Payir Trust, and with few handpicked passionate individuals across Chennai and Bengaluru.

Two fundamental things were well established in this eight-week experimental phase. Despite fragile internet connection and digital infrastructure, the children just thoroughly enjoyed the experience of learning. Secondly, the teachers were developing emotional connect with the children and expressed eagerness to continue their time beyond the summer camp.

In June 2010, the classes were extended to the same children from class6th to 8thafter the school hours for Maths, Science and English, in the NGO premises. From there evolved the first model of remote class delivery – a local-partner driven, outside-learning centre.

Improvising – an indispensable part of entrepreneurship

In July 2010, eVidyaloka drew a two-year pilot plan for their documented delivery model, defining three offerings- the ‘after school, NGO premises, NGO managed’ format, the ‘after school, rented premises, eVidyaloka directly managed’ format, and lastly, the ‘in school, NGO managed’ model.

Executed between April ‘11 and March ’13, they were able to establish six centres across TN, AP and JH, over 40teachers had taught over 250 children, over a span of more than 450 hours – completely online, of course. The students were showing results, too. Seventy percentof the children scored at least 50 percent in their academics back in school.

What Venkat learnt from this experiment is that the biggest catalyst of this innovation is the children’s instant acceptance of the virtual world, for a child’s mind is absolutely unbiased. And that the internet was still unstable and unavailable in villages is a myth - over 100,000 villages, as of 2012-13, were broadband connectivity powered, and it was only going to get better. Having said that, the connection was certainly not up to the mark. Moreover, erratic power supply was more of an issue than the internet. This was addressed by making a UPS system to handle the digital infra. Finding alternate broadband connections has been a constant part of the equation– as they shifted from BSNL Wired broadband to WiMax, mobile 3G and now, Reliance Jio.

Trial and error

Testing the waters with three models, the first, ‘after school model’ didn’t work as well as the ‘NGO premises/managed’and ‘eVidyaloka managed’ models. It was because the former would eat into their play hours, and girls found it difficult to make it beyond 6 pm because of social and safety reasons.

Having established sound fundamentals, a three-year-plan was laid. It was decided to replicate and scale it upto 50 villages across five states, reaching out to over 3,000 children with over 300 teachers from across the globe.

Moreover, based on the reviews from three schools in the Dharwad regions, which spread in all the lands, a total of 50 government school teachers assembled from the CRC, and spent time to understand how the eVidyaloka model works. Three of the panchayats where the eVidyaloka school is running, came together and invested resources to make sure the digital classrooms look neat, clean and conducive. The district administration of Jharkhand has even offered to take care of the entire school’s infrastructure and have eVidyaloka serve the KGBV schools, a phenomenon repeated in the adjacent district of Deogarh.

The result: 175 out of the targeted 300 were headhunted to teach at about 25 centres by 2015.This number was raised to 338 teachers, 49 centres across 49 villages from Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, 3,000 students and modules in four languages by 2016.

Kodak moments!

The team of 20 was able to rope in the inventor of Google Glass himself, to interact with the children of Jharkhand and even give them a live demo of the product, in a memorable session.

“I go and proudly tell my friends that my school is no less or better than most schools in Hyderabad”, says Genus, the Headmaster of Juvvalapalem School, a partner organisation in Andhra Pradesh

Venkatesh P, a volunteer from Hyderabad, heartily narrates, “I am engineer, but always wanted to be a teacher. eVidyaloka is a dream come true for me where I am realising my passion.”

Saturday, 24 September 2016

From 2 people working out of a bedroom to a successful media business — the Thought Pot Media story

Starting up is a challenge in itself, and it gets all the more complicated when you choose a sector that is already full of competition. Undaunted, 26-year-old media professional Pooja Jain teamed up with a colleague to set up an ad agency and took on the challenge of doing things differently.

A Bombay girl, Pooja secured a bachelor’s degree in accounts and finance from Lala Lajpat Rai College and went on to work first as a brand manager with Zee and then with multiple digital agencies. It was during one of her digital agency stints that she met her co-founder Abhijeet Chandan, discovering that they shared similar interests. The duo decided to turn their idea into reality and together founded Thought Pot Media, a full service digital agency with an aim to revolutionise the way the industry looked at the digital landscape, in January 2013.

Onboarding the first client was relatively easily owing to their previous contacts, but coming from an agency background they knew that to stand out from the crowd they needed to follow a different approach. Working out of a bedroom, we started working 24/7 at doing the same thing every other agency was doing, differently.

Standing out

Right from the start, Pooja and her co-founder made sure that they developed a process wherein the client feels really comfortable and both parties are on the same page at any given point. They also put together a flexible approach that could accommodate the latest trends and changes at any given point.

After setting up processes, the duo focused on onboarding the right people. Pooja and Abhijeet realised that although the two of them had industry experience, they could not do everything on their own. Hence, they set out to hire people who could think on their feet.

Recognising talent and delegating effectively is something we aim to achieve even today. One wrong decision can lead to a lot of problems and corrective measures have to be taken immediately. So we hired people who could align themselves with the vision of the company.

Thought Pot was started with a small team of five people and as work started pouring in, the team grew too and has 36 people as of today.

A full service digital agency, Though Pot Media devotes their time to quality storytelling by amalgamating creativity with technical innovation for each of their clients to build engaging conversations. Some of the agency’s best-known campaigns include
Launching three of Hollywood’s highest grossing movies in India in 2013.

A Twitter-powered battle called #I am The Wolverine as a pre-promotional activity for the release of The Wolverine 3 D in India which received 75 k tweets in three days’ time with the hashtag trending nationally. As a result, the movie’s official website got more than 25,000 unique visitors who spent an average of five minutes each on the website.

The biggest challenge in being an entrepreneur and running a company is the belief in yourself and your vision. That is quite difficult sometimes when there are so many things to achieve simultaneously. This is a challenge you have to overcome personally, wherever you may be working.

Tackling competition

According to EY’s Social Media Marketing India Trends Report, today, 41.5 percent of social media-savvy organisations say that around one–five percent of their marketing budget in spent on social media. Three-fourths of the organisations surveyed have social media budgets under Rs 10 crore, while a little above a quarter of the organisations surveyed have social media budgets exceeding Rs 20 crore. However, social media budgets were in excess of Rs 1 crore per annum and 14 percent of the brands spent Rs 10-20 crore on social media in 2014. There was a decline in the number of brands that spent in excess of Rs 20 crore to 14.3 percent in 2014 from 17.1 percent in 2013, indicating that brands are exceedingly cautious on the returns and are optimising spends.

The bootstrapped venture headquartered in Mumbai is growing fast, with a year-on-year growth of 75 percent. Thought Pot’s illustrious clientele includes big names such as Oakley, Truecaller, Nimbuzz, 20th Century Fox, Sony Entertainment, and Dharma Productions, among others.

Over the years, we have made sure that our content is very topical. This coupled with an internally well-structured team helps us get all these big brands on board.

For us, it’s very important to give the audiences a memorable experience and it is what we aim to achieve with every campaign we carry out.

Technology and innovation

Thought Pot was responsible for the release of The Wolverine for 20th Century Fox. "The Wolverine Experience" featured 19 big-screen kiosks that immersed passersby in a key fight scene from the film. With the help of a Kinect sensor, people took the role of the hero and could literally experience slashing away at the enemy with their own adamantium claws. The kiosks were placed all over the world, from Brazil to India and at Comic-Con.

Another interesting campaign the agency carried out was the Dark Room Activity for the movie Don’t Breathe. A whole setup where the user could go in and experience a dark room with hurdles and props was created in PVR theaters.

The users had to go in and find a hidden bag. There was also an old man with a gun inside the room to add a shock element. The entire room had hidden and go-pro cameras so we could capture the reactions. The room was also sound-engineered to create the vibe. We had influences and Bollywood celebs take the experience.

The agency has also recently made its foray into the production space with a campaign called #CelebrateHer for the brand Friends Adult Diapers, a subsidiary brand of Nobel Hygiene which went live around Daughter’s Day. With plenty of productions in the pipeline, the agency is now looking at newer ways to connect with consumers, present brands, and redefine what digital marketing.

But it’s more than just profits and an illustrious clientele that make a successful entrepreneur, feels Pooja. You are the peon and you are the founder as well. That's part and parcel of starting a company. If you can sweep your own office floor and take care of everything at the same time, then you will be able to achieve what you want. If not, then entrepreneurship may not be your cup of tea.

Friday, 23 September 2016

TrustBin converts food waste into organic manure

Shekhar belongs to a family whose primary source of income is farming. Having personally witnessed the troubles of organic farmers, he gave a lot of thought to how best to address their issues.
TrustBasket Team
His interest in growing potted plants made him want to improve the experience of gardening, and soon he had moved on to the idea of making a business out of it, leading to the birth of TrustBasket in February 2015.

It is a known fact that one of the most challenging aspects of waste disposal is getting people to adapt to the concept of segregation. Most of the garbage from cities ends up in landfills. This was why, in keeping with his vision of sustainable and affordable gardening, Shekhar came up with the idea of TrustBin, a product of parent company TrustBasket.

“We believed in composting as the effective and practical solution. Through this product, we are trying to solve a major challenge in our cities,” says Shekhar (31), a graduate in electronics and communication engineering. In the past, he has worked with Concentrix, Tech Mahindra, and EMC Corporation.

He further added that when people compost their food waste, they automatically separate dry waste from it which automatically solves the segregation issue.

Bengaluru-based TrustBin allows users to convert food waste into organic manure and in turn use it for growing plants. The liquid manure, a TrustBin by-product, can also be used as an effective cleaning agent for bathrooms.

Existing traditional composting methods are slow and malodour is a major drawback. Traditional methods are not very convenient for flats and small houses. While looking for alternate methods, we came across an interesting process widely followed in Australia, the US, Canada, etc. This is a biotechnology invention from Japan, and the same is brought to our market in the form of TrustBin,” says Shekhar.

The startup’s other product is the Grow Kit, which provides all the materials required for growing organic vegetables at home.
Going through multiple routes

The startup is exploring the idea of TrustBin manure being used for organic farming, and is analysing the feasibility of collaborating with farmers who practise organic farming to supply the manure (produced in houses).


The prototype stage will see customers connecting with farmers interested in using 100 percent organic domestically produced manure. Shekhar is also of the view that transportation costs will become more affordable with a bigger network of people using the Bin.

Having multiple business models always help to scale up towards gainingincremental growth and Shekhar wants to play safe. The startup also sells over 300 varieties of seeds.

Growth metrics

TrustBasket’s current month-on-month revenue growth is 30 percent, with the majority of it being driven by the e-commerce model. Shekhar says, “Going forward, our primary focus is to build a brand and sell via stores as well. Gardening products are always best sold by leveraging the convenience of online platforms with the in-store experience possible at physical stores.”

They are planning to start kiosks/retail stores at various organic shops and shopping malls. With this vision, the startup is looking forward to grow sales tenfold by the end of 2017.

A well-planned capital budget determines the scalability of a startup during the initial phase, so it is no wonder that Shekhar prefers to rely on social media and word of mouth for TrustBin’s marketing. The team comprises 15 full-time employees and five freelancers.

Others in the space

Betting big on gardening as a hobby, a few startups have sprouted in the last few years. Greenopia is a smart gardening kit that consists of one or multiple smart pots and a mobile application that helps a user monitor and take care of their plants remotely. is an online aggregator of plants, gardening accessories and services, organic produce, and green consumer products. Ugaoo offers a broad range of gardening and agriculture supplies such as kitchen garden seeds, commercial hybrid seeds, garden tools, insecticides, and a wide range of multilingual books on various topics.

According to a study by ASSOCHAM and TechSci Research, India's organic food market is growing at a rate of 25–30 per cent and will touch $1.36 billion by 2020.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The utterly butterly delicious story of Amul

Over the years, Amul, one of the most beloved brands of our country, has become the taste of India, just as its tagline claims. Every Indian millennial has grown up listening to the jingles of its many dairy products, and the Amul girl, the brand’s mascot in the polka-dotted dress, has become a nostalgia-evoking symbol. Amul has truly come a long way since its founding in 1946.

The beginning

Amul was formed as a part of a cooperative movement against Polson Dairy in Anand, Gujarat, which procured milk from local farmers of Kaira District at very low rates and sold it to the then Bombay government. Everyone except the farmers benefited from this trade. The farmers took their plea to Sardar Patel, who had advocated farmers’ cooperatives since 1942. The result was the formation of the Kaira District Co-operative Milk Producers’ Union Limited in Anand.

The union started pasteurising milk produced by a handful of farmers for the Bombay Milk Scheme and grew to 432 farmers by the end of 1948. The rapid growth led to problems including excess production that the Bombay Milk Scheme couldn’t accommodate. To solve this issue, a plant was set up to process all that extra milk into products such as milk powder and butter.
Amul is born

The late Dr Verghese Kurien, rightly called the Milkman of India, was Amul’s true architect. His journey at Amul began in 1949 when he arrived in Anand to manage a dairy as a government employee. He went from helping farmers repair machinery to revolutionising India’s dairy industry with the White Revolution (or Operation Flood), the largest dairy development programme in the world.

The new dairy with the milk processing plant was ready for operation in October 1955, the year that also saw a breakthrough in dairy technology —buffalo milk was processed to make products for the first time in the world. The word ‘Amul’, derived from ‘Amulya’, which means ‘precious’ or ‘priceless’ in Sanskrit, was used to market the range of milk products developed by the Kaira Union. It is also an acronym for Anand Milk Union Ltd.

Dr Kurien had a vision. He wanted to offer small-scale dairy farmers quality-control units and centralised marketing, which were missing at the time in the dairy economy. Thus, the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) was created in 1973 to market milk and all milk products produced by six district cooperative unions in Gujarat. GCMMF is the largest exporter of dairy products in India and Amul is the umbrella for all of its products.
Awards, accolades, and a global presence
Over the years, Amul, together with GCMMF, has won numerous awards. Some of these include the Rajiv Gandhi National Quality Award, 1999; the Golden Trophy for Outstanding Export Performance, 2009-10; Best Marketing Campaign, 2014; and World Dairy Innovation Award, among many others. Amul earned recognition all over the world when GCMMFintroduced it on the Global Dairy Trade (GDT) platform, where only the six top dairy players across the world sell their products.
More than a mere slogan

Amul’s famous slogan, which is now a part of its logo, was created in 1994 by Shri Kanon Krishna of a Mumbai-based advertising agency called Advertising and Sales Promotion (ASP). According to Amul, the Taste of India slogan is more than just corporate positioning or advertising jargon. This slogan lends meaning to the brand’s never-ending commitment to taking quality food and products to the rural man, which he otherwise couldn’t have afforded.

The Butter Girl

Amul did not always have the round-eyed moppet as its mascot. The Butter Girl was born in 1966 when Sylvester daCunha, the then MD of the advertising agency handling Amul butter’s account, created her for its campaign. It was a pleasant change from the dull, corporate ads that the previous agency had come up with. Being a seasoned marketer himself, Dr Kurien gave daCunha complete creative freedom to create and release the ads without taking the company’s permission. 30 years later, the Utterly Butterly Girl still wins hearts wherever she is, whether on a billboard or on the packet of butter.

Amul is not just a brand; it is also a movement that represents farmers’ economic freedom. The name is now a household term that is here to stay, and the chubby-cheeked Amul girl will continue to cast a spell on the public.

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.