His mantra: User interface and design are more important than engineeringRohit Singal is one reason why you can’t put entrepreneurship inside a box. When parents aspire their children to grow up to become a doctor, a highly paid profession in India, Rohit did that and in one swift stroke became an engineer writing codes, bitten by success first as a freelance software developer and then by entrepreneurial bug, following his heart literally. Without any formal education or background in software, this whiz kid of entrepreneurship, a trained radiologist at that, went to wow customers with his Sourcebits. Defying every convention of education and entrepreneurship, you can think of, Rohit writes his own codes and his own rules. In his conversation with YourStory.in, Rohit explains what makes him what he is.
Factsheet: Rohit Singal, a radiologist by profession (an MD in radiology after MBBS) founded Sourcebits, an app company in Bangalore in 2006. He made that dream million dollars very soon and went on to wow customers with his apps. His company now has become a champion of software products in espousing through its existence what a software product company is by execution (not by definition). He did everything that a software product company needs to succeed without reading any rule book and instead following his heart. By the way, he does not read much.
A radiologist turned mobile app entrepreneur, how did that happen? Tell us the story.
In India, how you go to medical school is you usually do MBBS and then you do post-graduation (MD). So, when I was doing MBBS, my dad got me a computer and I was really hooked onto it, but I never even thought that I would be in computers. That was just a hobby, and I had to pursue my medical career. After finishing my MBBS from Government College in Haryana, I got MD in Ramaiah Memorial Hospital in Bangalore. They had requirement for this communication system software, which big companies like Siemens and other big companies were selling at quite a good amount of money. I offered them this software for $100,000. They got convinced and brought it from me. I got that money, and I was enjoying work in this field quite a lot, so I thought why not make a company out of it. When I passed out, I started the company.
It was a very gutsy thing to do.
Retrospectively, we can think like that, but during that time I didn’t give it too much of a thought.
How old were you when you started up?
I was 30.
Why the name Sourcebits?
It is a combination of two words – Source + bits. Bits is the lowest denominator in coding, and you can source bits from us, that is why the name.
Sourcebits is one of the very few VC-funded services companies in India.
With my medical background we didn’t have any contacts in this field when we started out. So when we always made a product, first it was on Mac, then it got very popular, a lot of people were interested and gave us consulting work. Similarly on mobile also, we developed a product which sold quite well and we made a million dollars. Then consulting work followed after that. We continue to have our product and services direction, and since India has a benefit of scale, we can hire quality talent in a quick span of time. So we are utilizing both to pursue forward our strategy.
Since you come from medical background, how hard was it to set up the initial team?
I didn’t have any coding background. All I was looking for was gut feel, and how much the other person is passionate about what I want to do and whether he aligns with it. Based on that gut feel, I use to hire people and maybe those people are also quite different from the normal crowd because the normal crowd would go to the established companies. The kind of people I hired were looking for something different which is not normal, so they never go to the established companies. There are always these kind of people but they would not have that kind of typical experience or academics which you would look for in a corporate environment.
Where did you hire them from mostly?
I hired people mostly while going to the forums and looking at the activity. Today there is Quora.com where most of the coding talent comes from, and there are similar forums where most of the design talent comes. If you go frequently to such forums, and understand them, then you would know which people are right for your startup.
What is the customer split between India and the US?
Mostly our business is in the US. Over 95% of the business is in the US and in India maybe we have four or five customers.
Was it hard to sell in the US, while you are predominantly based out of India?
We don’t have any sales people and we don’t go out and sell. All our customers approach us through our website and they give us business. This list includes Intel, SAP, and US Military, and other such big enterprise customers. But, I focussed on building a brand which is design-led engineering, and which is different from all the other services firms. All the other services firms in India are focussed on doing the back-end work, not particularly focussing on the user experience or how the user would consume the content that they developed, whereas we are extremely focussed on that and engineering is second to the design. We are very design-led, and that was quite unique and it is still not very much there in India, so people approach us for that.
Do you see that changing though? Do you see the focus on design coming any time soon?
India is a very price-conscious market. For the design-led culture, we have to have people from all across the world. We have 100 people outside of India and they all have to be highly paid, as much as $50 per hour, whereas in India, because we don’t focus as much on design and focus only on engineering, they offer at $10–20 an hour. In India, people are not ready to pay the premium for the experience. For them, it is like a commodity. I am not generalizing, but there are a few people who pay also, but not all.
If you were to tell me 3 things that would make great design, what would they be?
Design consists of three parts: (1) user interaction, (2) visual design and (3) if you are looking at mobile and tablet design, then you have to look at the icon design also. The key component is the user interaction. This is the post-PC era as Steve Jobs mentioned in one of his speeches. In the previous era, what used to happen was that you used to get a big manual to figure out how to use the product and explain to you how it works. The reason was that there was an assumption that normal people won’t be able to open the app and be able to play with it, but today you don’t see any manuals at all. Because you assume that any normal user would be able to open the app and be able to use it without too much of a guidance. It is important to make the user interface so simple that it is easy to use and at the same time equal or more productive than the earlier interfaces.
The user interaction is the most important part of the design. Then the visual design is very important. Something that is pretty to look at, and is pleasing to the eye. It is second priority compared to the user interface design. Then icon design is also quite important. In the economy that we have, each app is only a dollar or less than a dollar. People only look at the icon and some of them make the decision only by looking at that icon. The icon for apps is just like a logo of a company and how much effort you put in the branding of an app determines its success.
For you sitting here in India, with multiple offices in the US, and also with the new office coming up in Europe, how do you manage the teams at different time zones?
I believe in giving 100% ownership and keeping a flat organization. So we have a partner model where we have about 25% partners right now and each one of them is free to take whatever decision is it that they want to take. They can also accept or reject projects. It is not a hierarchy where there are 20 people at the top and they make the decisions, Whereas in Sourcebits, the Poland office would be opened up by Lee Williams and he would take all the decisions as the CEO. So, we have given that kind of empowerment to the people, and they also have a profit share. I think it is quite a unique model we are trying and we will see how it works out.
Sequoia and IDG came on board last year right. How do you see them adding value?
Sequoia and IDG came on board and invested $10 million, and these companies are known for investing in product companies. I believe in this space, we are the only ones that they have invested in and again the reason for that is that in services space everyone is doing services in one way only, in the hierarchical fashion and not focussing on design. They are treated as a back-end shop, who do white-label work. So if some big company is doing some work, they would not even be interested in claiming that they did that work. Let us say, you are using Microsoft Windows, you don’t know which are the Indian companies that have written code for Microsoft Windows, because Microsoft or any other company is getting the work done under a white-label arrangement. But, in our case, we insisted right from the beginning that, if we do some work, we would claim that work and we would be very much involved in the user experience part of it. If you think us as a back-end shop, we are not the ones.
I think this is the reason why we are able to attract the best of talent. Our head of design is an Apple Design Award winner. Our San Francisco unit has people who joined us from a strong product background. Lee Williams who joined us was the head of Symbian foundation, and we have Prasanna who was the head of Flip Camera unit. So this kind of talent pool that we have is very difficult to attract in a services company.
So we have been successful at attracting the best of talent, which only product companies can attract otherwise, and because of the same talent, we are consistently able to deliver great products for our clients. We made many of our clients very rich.
How do you manage to attract the best talent in the industry, all the big names you have mentioned?
This has been asked quite a lot of times, and I don’t know what the answer is. I think if you believe very passionately and talk to the person, with a very honest intent, and show him a vision where Sourcebits is going and what role he will be playing, I don’t think money is always a criteria. I think it is challenge that you are putting and the importance that he will have in the system. Empowerment + Recognition of the work + Passion – I think these are very important for attracting the right talent.
Now that you have mentioned, what is your vision for Sourcebits?
The mobile space is quite hot, the segment that we are in. According to many of the industry reports, this is going to grow to $15 billion by 2013. It is a huge space that we are in. At this pace, we want to be a billion dollar in revenue organization within the next 5 years, and also go public.
Any design tips for entrepreneurs building products in India . . .
99% of the entrepreneurs that I meet in India are cool and the kind of products that they are building are also super cool, but I still see that they are not focussing on the design.
Most of the entrepreneurs have engineering background, and if we look at schools also in India, we don’t have formal courses for user interface design on the mobile devices or tablets or cloud apps. Still most of the schools are teaching fashion design and such courses, and some of these students are now moving into the computer field. We don’t have formal training going on in design and then the entrepreneurs are not focussing initially on the design. Although all of them later realize the importance of design, but I feel it is like a chicken and egg problem. They believe let us make proof of concept and then we can focus on design. But if they are making products for the users or enterprises for that matter, they have to get the user interaction right and then worry about the engineering. I don’t think the engineering is that big a challenge in most of the apps, there are some places where you have to be technically strong, but most of them are easier. Indian engineering is much easier vis-a-vis design.Are there any design entrepreneurs that you look up to?
Obviously, Steve Jobs! And, also of late, there are some of the companies that have come up. There is a company called Path, and another one Flipboard. There is a company by the name Square. If you look at the products that they have done, they have redefined user interfaces and design. Even if you look at their Twitter page, the amount of interaction that they have managed to build on single page is just amazing. You can click on the link and watch the images and videos on the same page! Even the timeline feature in Facebook. I know some people like it and some people don’t, but I think Mark Zuckerberg is doing awesome work. I mean having earned so of much money and still keeping a strong hold on the organization that he has built from scratch. He is right up there.
Are there any Indian design successes that you admire?
In India, I am not trying to be arrogant here, I don’t know of a single company that has done a cool design-led product. In fact, we did nightstand and other products, which are globally very popular. I am not aware of any applications that have been done from India other than Sourcebits that have been globally popular. There are apps done by Indians though, for example Saavn. It is music app, very nicely designed and a very nice app, but those people are based in the US. I have not come across someone in India, who has never been to the US, doing something design-led. However, I now meet people, who are trying to do it, and we have to see what comes out of it.
How is your design team split between India and the US?
We have very few designers in India. We have a quite a few in Europe, and most of them in the US. In India, it is very hard to find good designers. In India, we can find people, if instructed they are able to do well, but the interaction part is very creative and people have to come up with ideas where interaction is unique and easy. That is a very big challenge to find that kind of people in India. We have found a few people, but it is not scalable in India.
Some of the mistakes that you have made as an entrepreneur in the last 5 years?
I love doing mistakes, and I hate feedback. So, I don’t want to learn from anyone else’s experience. In every step, I have made mistakes. Every week I make a mistake that I am embarrassed about.
What was the most recent one?
Sometimes, I get really harsh when I communicate, which I regret later. Or maybe there is a different way to communicate, or know the importance of finance, or what is the importance of HR, or how you should make the workplace very happy for the employees rather than thinking about the money matters too much. These are more of transit learnings that you would only get to know when all of a sudden one employee comes and tells you he is leaving because you are not good to him. Then you get to know that you could have been different, and though these are all things that are listed in many books. But, I hate reading books.
You are a doctor. So you must have worked extremely hard and read a lot of books . . .
(Laughs) Yes, that is why my only motivation to run Sourcebits is that I don’t get back to medical field (continues laughing).
Another personal question. When you started Sourcebits was there any resistance from your family? Because your background was very different.
No, my parents were very supportive in fact. I was married by that time, and my wife was very very supportive, and I would not say they were totally aligned. I would also like to add that they were of the mindset that if he is trying to do something, let him do it.
Now we are slowly seeing the app ecosystem build up in India, in terms of number of apps being downloaded. Do see people paying for apps anytime soon however?
Eventually, it would happen, because in a country like China people are now paying for apps. I believe India would follow that path, but I don’t think people would start paying in the next 4-5 years.
Is there anything else that you want to share with our readers?
In India whatever you see, let us say we talk about the interface of Bangalore. My last visit to US has only happened last year, before which I have never been out of India. So when I saw San Francisco, how it is designed and how all the blocks work together, it is amazing. We in India design everything based out of necessity. Okay, today we need a bridge here, let us make one. Today we need a restaurant here, let us start one here. Rather than thinking from a long-term perspective. I think in India there are just two well-designed cities: one is Chandigarh and another Bhubaneshwar. Chandigarh still remains a very well-designed city. So, fundamentally we don’t give importance to design. Even if you go restaurants here, there is no design sense. So as an Indian, I really want that we start focussing more on design. Technology is not a challenge anymore. So we should have schools that are focussing only on design, not just for technology or computers but for everything.