NASSCOM Product Conclave Special
Sahil Parikh is the founder of a Mumbai-based SaaS venture, DeskAway. Five years ago, in 2005, overcome by a desire to start a company in India to demonstrate that Indians are capable of creating world class products, he started Synage Software. His web design and development service led to DeskAway, a remote project management product. Initially using service revenue to fund product development, Sahil made a decision to shift focus fully to DeskAway after a point in time. He rates that’s the best decision ever he has taken.
When not in front of the computer, he spends his time reading, writing, playing golf, tennis and travelling to distant exotic places. You can follow him on Twitter @sahilparikh or check out his work+life stream at www.sahilparikh.com.
In an email conversation with Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy, chief evangelist, Sahil talks about his entrepreneurial journey and why he chose SaaS platform for his product DeskAway.
YourStory: Thank you Sahil for talking to YourStory. Please explain your entrepreneurship journey from 2005—five years now—on your return from the US.
Sahil Parikh: Like most youth from India, I left for the US in 1998 in search for a business degree. Along the way, I bumped into a few dozen courses in computer science, and realized that it was my calling. With business acumen, and sound technical background, it wasn't long before I joined the founding team of an entrepreneurship society in my university, hobnobbing with like-minded individuals, investors and spending a good deal of time around incubators.
Through college and post-graduation, I held multiple jobs in various verticals and industries (see details below) determined to get a feel of many business types, as I knew I would soon start my own Internet business. During the post-9/11 economic crunch, I survived on freelance jobs until I could land on my feet. In 2002, I co-started a web design and development consultancy with my wife, which I ran while holding down a full-time job in an e-healthcare firm. Our consultancy, after a bumpy start, began taking off and we had large publicly traded companies on our retainer in 3 years.
Soon after, on an unforgiving itch to realize my lingering dream to start a software company from India, I quit my job, moved my US business home and started another company, Synage Software, in 2005 to build a web product that would prove that India is more than a low-cost service destination and we can make a world-class product all on our own. When we moved back to India we were taking up a lot of web design and development projects and hence needed a tool to assign tasks to our team and track the number of hours they would take. We wanted to make delegating easy and wanted to keep on top of client work. We looked at other products out there that we could but couldn't find anything that was simple, feature-rich and yet affordable. We developed the first version of DeskAway in 2005 as a testing ground – for our internal use to gain project clarity. Possibly, our goal was to simplify the whole process of getting a project from start to finish with the least amount of friction. At that time I was also reading Michael Gerber's E-Myth in which he speaks about having systems in place so that things can be automated. Virtual teams were becoming popular, SaaS was on the rise and this is when we saw an opportunity to fulfill the need for a simple, powerful and affordable collaborative online service backed by personalized customer service.
DeskAway was initially funded from revenues from our Web design and development business. Later, it was funded with a portion of my savings.
YS: Why did you choose SaaS for your business and what was the scenario for SaaS in India when you started?
Sahil: I wasn’t interested in following the herd with software services and outsourcing. Web2.0 and SaaS was on the rise in the US and I felt this was the future of software. Why should businesses buy software when they can rent it out? Why do they need to manage their servers? All of this can be outsourced to a SaaS provider. A business can concentrate on its core services – which made a lot of sense. Plus, SaaS is really good for the cost-conscious (most Indians J) as they have to be a low-monthly fee, instead of buying expensive software upfront.
YS: What was the critical need of business you found that you launched DeskAway and how successful is the product today?
Sahil: DeskAway is a web-based project management tool that helps teams to organize, manage and track their work from a central location.
With the growing number of small businesses/distributed teams, increased broadband penetration, and 24×7 mobile work culture, DeskAway is rightly poised to give teams an accurate view of how their projects are doing and help eliminate common problems that occur when multiple people are collaborating: email spam, multiple file versions, lost files, task accountability issues, lack of clarity & work transparency.
Our vision is to provide simple, powerful and affordable tools that enable people to work smarter.
I just felt that people were not using a smart tool to delegate and track work – and this problem needed to be addressed.
DeskAway is profitable and used by companies in over 30 countries. See www.deskaway.com/buzz/
YS: How did you find your first customer? Any anecdotal experiences with any customer who first shied away from you and later came into buy your product?
Sahil: Our web design and development clients were our initial users. We shared with them our vision of DeskAway and they loved it. They used it when communicating with us on their projects.
There were customers who didn’t buy from us earlier and later bought a subscription online. I wouldn’t want to name them specifically but once you know that you require a tool like DeskAway the buy-in becomes really easy. The need/want needs to come from within.
YS: Customer acquisition, product development, pricing, right people—can you explain your challenges on these fronts?
Sahil: Here are a few challenges we faced:
Switching from a service business to a product business. A service business lets you start earning revenues from almost day one. Whereas in the case of a product, you need to put in a lot of time, effort and money at the beginning that slowly starts to pay off at a later stage. Since we had to get out of our comfort zone, this was difficult initially. We would take up one or two web development projects on the side. This would take our attention away from DeskAway and take up time and energy. It reached a stage where I took the critical decision to stop all service projects and concentrate 100% on DeskAway. This has been my best decision till date.
Getting Indian customers to try DeskAway during the Summer of 2007 was another challenge. We would be called into ad agencies, design and PR firms for presentations, and finally they would want to buy the software to install on their own machines. They didn't understand the business model, or ironically, why the software was so affordable. We spent quite a lot of time educating companies here about the online model, how it is beneficial to them in the long run and how they are actually saving costs on buying expensive software. This is quite a challenge when you are small and are pressed for time. We now run multiple online marketing channels and have a robust online help and video section where prospects and customers can learn about DeskAway before using it. This is drastically reduced our cost of customer acquisition.
While we have been fortunate in our core team, we do face difficulties in peripheral talent acquisition. We are looking for quality and quantity and a long-term mindset. Working in a small growing product company should be a passion for them and not a job! Hence, I have been involved with all interviews personally trying to understand the candidate better (from a nontechnical standpoint) and showing him what’s possible if he/she joins our team. You have to show them the bigger picture and the light at the end of the tunnel.
YS: What were your challenges as an innovator—SaaS platform, people’s mindset about SaaS, data security. You had adopted an emerging technology and Web 2.0, which means parking lot of data on the Internet. How did customers view this and what did you do to convince their apprehensions?
Sahil: Security and control of data are points people bring up when making a decision. However, these are just myths.
At the end of the day, people need to be comfortable with your service and your app/tool should solve a real problem. Once you can demonstrate value, these points don’t stand a chance when making the sale.
YS: What is the potential of SaaS in India?
Sahil: It is huge – SaaS is cost-effective and hassle-free. Who wouldn’t love low cost (freemium) software that they don’t have to install!
YS: You seem to be writing a book. Can you tell us about your book?
Sahil: Yes, it will be published by the end of this month/early next month. The book is about how companies can leverage SaaS and online tools for competitive advantage. The primary idea behind this book is to highlight how everything is slowly shifting towards the Web—your emails, thoughts, ideas and friends, to all your business software. The beauty of this shift is that there are no entry barriers—any person or business (of any size whatsoever) can participate and prosper.
YS: What books do you read in general and your recommended list for a startup entrepreneur.
Sahil: Some of the books that come to my mind are…
E-myth by Michael Gerber, Rich Dad Poor Dad series, Mavericks at Work
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, The 4 Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris
iCon, a book on Steve Jobs, You, Inc by Harry Beckwith, The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
YS: Your tips for success for a startup entrepreneur.
Sahil: (a) Focus on The Core – In early 2005/06 we were doing a bit of everything like most web design/development firms. What I learned was that you should focus on one thing and do it well. That's when we phased out the service side and concentrated completely on building, growing and scaling DeskAway, even if it meant taking a risk and plugging our immediate source of income.
(b) Talk to yourself - Ask yourself as to why you want to start a new venture? Is it only money or is there a higher purpose attached to it? Are you solving a need or just following a fad? Its important to answer these questions before you jump full time into starting out.
(c) Do not Hire Experts – I have had better luck hiring people who want to learn than people who already come with "expert" skills. Its a joy in helping a developer learn new things - to create a win-win situation. Things change so quickly that you require people who are willing to learn, unlearn and re-learn.
In a nutshell, build a small, motivated team, keep things simple, stay focused, use less capital-intensive methods, outsource what is not core, and monitor and measure everything on a daily basis.