[Techie Tuesdays] Why the founders of PayPal and Yahoo backed these guys

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It was your typical Tuesday evening on the old airport road in Bangalore. I was going to be a little late to my meeting with the founders of Zendrive, who had created quite the stir in Valley for having raised 1.5 million dollars in about 2 weeks of their launch. This round was raised from the likes of Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, celebrated author Tim Ferris and PayPal co-founder Max Levchin. The typical Bangalore pothole-filled roads were giving me and my car a lot of grief. Add traffic and rain to the equation and it really begins to depress you.

And I don’t mean that lightly.

A regular American family spends about 2 hours in covering the cost of running a car. This cost is more for families with a smaller income. What’s even worse is that commuting everyday to work in a car causes depression. In fact, it has been quantified - two hours worth driving up and down to work as much impact on your happiness as being unemployed.

It’s crazy, right?

Well, Jonathan Matus and Pankaj Risbood thought so too, and they started Zendrive. There are so many stories that this whole situation offers - how these guys became the techies that they are? How did this particular idea come up? Why this alliance?

Today’s Techie Tuesday(s) are two of the brightest minds in the world, who outgrew their responsibilities at other corporations. If you’re a technology user, you’ve probably used the products they’ve built. They’ve decided to work for themselves and it’s almost befitting, that they have taken on a problem that affects many, many people around the world.

Today’s Techie Tuesday is going to be slightly different. We meet Pankaj, from Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, and Jonathan, from Israel - Founders of Zendrive, mobile and cloud geniuses and your Techie Tuesdays for today.

Google, Facebook and Walmart labs

Both Jonathan and Pankaj were colleagues at Google, post which they joined Facebook and Walmart labs. Jonathan said, “Pankaj and I worked together at Google, on their speech recognition project and some of our efforts have translated to what you know today as Google Search by voice, which is available in over 30 languages and is available in close to a billion devices across the world.”

“While Pankaj went on to make Voice Search language agnostic and scale the product, I joined the Android team. This was two years before the launch of Android and the team was all but 30 people. From there on, we took it to making it the world's most used operating system. My last role at Google was managing Android operations in APAC.”

“After this, I joined Facebook, where I helped them with their mobile platform and my last project there was the in app installer, which is a tool that lives inside the newsfeed of the Facebook mobile app, and it helps you to install mobile apps from Facebook.” This tool accounts for 30% of Facebook’s revenues today.

Pankaj on the other hand went on to the cloud computing side of things. He says, “I worked with speech processing for about 4 years, post which I moved on to cloud computing, where I worked on the Google app engine and building APIs for Google apps. After that, I joined Walmart Labs in early 2012, working with them on social analytics.”

The Zendrive idea

Jonathan's and Pankaj’s demeanor can put you at ease; and, to me, and given their past achievements, they seemed quite laid back. But as they started speaking about the idea behind their product, their passion towards entrepreneurship really comes through. “Our investors, Jerry Yang and Max Levchin, often advised us - You are smart guys who love solving big problems. So think of the problems that affect everyday life. Think of problems that everyone faces.”

Being in companies like Facebook and Google, transportation from home to office is solved for the most part. He says, “Sitting on the Facebook shuttle or the Google shuttle, you don’t realise how big a pain driving really is. There are researches that suggest that an average driver, spends about 2 weeks in a year driving. That’s the average time that a person spends for holiday. I faced the same issue after being introduced to driving.”

“I don’t remember which business leader said it, but you cannot improve anything that you cannot measure. So we used the quantified self approach to solving this problem. Think of a fraction, where the numerator is all the good things about owning and using a car, and the denominator is all the bad things associated with driving. The solution to the fraction is the overall driving experience. On a superficial level, we started thinking about how we can help provide insights in reducing all the bad things associated with driving, resulting in a better driving experience.”

Zendrive is a mobile app in the making, that will give you insights on everything related to driving. Jonathan says, “Have you ever had that situation, when leaving 5 minutes early or later meant a huge difference in your travel time? Say you leave for work at 7:30 am every day in the morning and it takes you 30 minutes to reach your office. But if you leave at 7:15 am, you have a chance of completely missing the traffic and reaching in 15 minutes. Zendrive could provide these insights to you – what time to take, which route to take, so as to have a not-so-depressing experience while driving.”

Another part of the app is to help change your driving behaviour for your benefit. While this seems like a tall ask, Jonathan shared that they’ve got the right people working on it. He says, “Think of it this way - if someone you know is in the hospital and the doctor tells you there’s a 80% survival rate, you’re going to be a little relieved. But if the doctor were to tell you that there’s a 20% chance of not surviving, you’re going to flip. Dan Ariely has written extensively about Behavioral Economics, in his books. We’ve got the person who designed game mechanics for the Sims and Guitar Hero consulting with us for building the game mechanics for Zendrive.”

Is it like gamification?, I asked. Jonathan said, “I don’t like to call it gamification, as it is a very trivial definition of what we’re trying to do. We do not want to have whistles and balloons in our app. I like to think of it as behavioural economics and the quantified self.”

A likely alliance

After his job at Facebook, Jonathan was working with Redpoint Ventures as an entrepreneur in residence, incubating some of this idea and he realised that he needed a partner. He says, “I knew that I needed a co-founder who could compliment my product expertise with expertise in data and the backend side. Pankaj had just come to the US with Walmart Labs and I knew it was this guy. I was always in touch with Pankaj and I’ve seen him build big data teams of great quality in the past and Zendrive would need someone who was strong on this front.”

Zendrive has a team of engineers in the US, working on the product side and a team in India working on the data analytics side of things. Jonathan says, “My circle of expertise lies in the US and Pankaj’s in India. A lot of people have asked me if we had a team in India to cut costs. The truth is, if Pankaj were even in Switzerland or any other expensive place, I would have partnered with him.”

Making money

When visions are so big, revenues almost seem secondary. But both Pankaj and Jonathan are cognizant about it. Pankaj says, “We’re cognizant that making money is important to run a company and we had this in mind. Our investors, both Jerry Yang and Max Levchin have told us to tap big, and pertinent problems, and the potential is limitless.”

Jonathan explains that the insurance market in the US is very big. He says, “The yearly spend on insurance in the US is $200 billion. Compare that to online advertising, which is $70 billion and you see the kind of companies that the space has. Young people pay a premium with respect to insurance, because on the whole, the segment is more prone to accidents. That doesn’t mean that a young person who is a responsible driver should pay the same premium."

“Also, automobile companies are one of the largest spenders of ad-money. Given the level of specific data that we’d have, we can provide very targeted advertising for them. Say, you’re Tesla. You’re looking to target people of a certain age group and who drive a certain class of cars. We can make sure that we can help them reach directly to those people.”

Techies to entrepreneurs

The whole interaction for me was very enriching - I was not only meeting arguably two of the cleverest people in the world, but I also had the unique opportunity of understanding the motivations of such people towards entrepreneurship. What can make people leave the comfort of companies like Facebook or Google or Walmart Labs and indulge, with enthusiasm, in the hardships of entrepreneurship? Why break something that is working?

Pankaj’s answer is like so many other entrepreneurs’ - “It’s just an itch. When you’re working for big companies, you’re solving great problems, but for someone else. Why can’t you do that for yourself?"

Jonathan shared his moment reckoning as well - “I had joined Android at a very early stage, and the experience was very much like a startup. From a small team, to growing it to a global success was such a rewarding experience.”

The three mafias

Zendrive is unique, in that, the number of investors and their identity isn’t revealed, while the size of the funding has been. Jonathan says, “Along with raising a good round of capital, we actually went out in the market to onboard a set of good investors, who could help us connect to the right sort of people, as well as mentor and advise us on our path.”

Jonathan further added that Zendrive has 3 mafias. He says, “Between me and Pankaj, we represent the Google Mafia. I also bring in the Facebook mafia. And with Max (Levchin) we also have the PayPal mafia in the team. We are really fortunate to have all these people on board.”

Before parting, Jonathan and Pankaj shared that they’re looking to hire the best talent, to work with them. He said, “If there’s a really smart person, we can give them a strong problem to solve.”

Apply if you think you have it in you - you’ll have the opportunity of working with some very clever minds.

Get in touch with Pankaj and Jonathan here.