It's an unlikely portrait of a hacker, a college dropout and ultimately a technepreneur. For Shashank Chourey grew up with indulgent parents, in a middle class Brahmin family home in Indore. Life took a turn when the 13-year-old boy fell in love with computers. He would play games on it all night; miss his school exams. Coding became his cocaine. Hacking was a high among friends he made in chat rooms. Every coder worth his salt wanted to be a hacker. It didn't take Shashank long to rise up the ranks. He found a steady source of income at crackpal.com, where the pay was $50 to hack into an email account.
Viruses, algorithms and Interpol
He continued the hacking business during his first year of engineering college. “I hacked into more than 40 Indian government websites and more than 100 big corporate websites in less than 18 minutes. That included NTPC tenders, the Delhi Government official site and so on. I sent a report on their poor cyber security to CERT and NIC, but they were least interested,” Shashank recalls.
He tracked viruses, wrote one algorithm after another, and even worked with the Indore Police as their official cyber security consultant for about two years. Web security was billed to be the next big thing but it was hard to make money on it above board. He was one of those experts on IRC Chat networks – “where all the bad internet activities are done”.
“An interesting thing about IRCs is that you never know who the guy you are chatting with is. Interpol, FBI, CIA, Defcon hackers, LulSec, Nazigodz … name them and they are all there. Big companies hire on the sly here,” he says. He did their bidding for a year almost and realised that it wasn't his cup of tea. “I found that work too risky or too bad. Although I was doing big things by then, I knew hacking into emails and such stuff wasn't what I wanted to do.”
College too wasn't his cup of tea; he found the curriculum way too boring and dropped out in the second year.
College dropout/ Web security expert
All of us know Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College and built Apple. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and founded Microsoft. Another college dropout, Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook. But in India, being a college dropout isn't a dreamy prospect. His parents didn't scold him but neighbours never missed a chance to snigger.
What to do next? Why not be a web security consultant with a company? He thought it was a good idea to boost his resume with “corporate experience” and earn a decent living. The best way, he could think of, to land the job was to hack into a company website, something big enough to impress the employer. “I figured out the best company to work for in Indore then, hacked into their client’s website, and exposed its vulnerabilities to sell them my services. I gave them a business idea, including the resources required. I was appointed then and there.”
He worked there for a year and a half, got three promotions, and quit as a project manager because another company offered him a bigger pay packet. After 45 days at the new job, he didn't see any salary. “There was no prospect of salary coming in the following days as well. So I quit with just Rs 5000 in my pocket.”
Eating, sleeping, living work
On 23 February 2009, Shashank walked out of that office at 5 pm. No college degree, no job in sight, he decided to look for work online. “At 8 pm, I got a data entry project, PSD to Excel, for which the pay was $18. I stayed up all night and finished the job by next day on my Pentium 3 computer at home.” He worked through days and nights picking up projects online. The idea was to earn enough money to startup. In a month, he was able to buy another computer, rope in a friend to work with him, and soon, another computer and one more friend was in. Both these friends had completed their engineering by then and hadn't found a job yet.
These friends soon left him for lucrative jobs, but by then Shashank had found his footing in search engine optimisation. In October 2009, he started up India Infotech with a small team. Soon he realised the gulf between running a service-based company and a product-based one. “If we had to get bigger, we had to get into product. But with very limited amount of money, getting into the product business was not possible. Then we came up with a solution: sell product as a service.”
That's how the startup evolved into a specialized ecommerce website development company offering a wide array of affordable SEO services to clients all over the world. “We created a SEO process flow, which is more or less the same for most of the clients. This model helped us to execute bulk projects using the assembly line execution method with less resources. We kept our eyes on the ball to maintain the retainership with our clients. We still work with three out of our first five SEO clients,” Shashank says.
For over a year, he used to stay in his office all through the week, though home was just 7 kilometres away in the same city. “I used to live in my office just to make sure I could spend more time working.”
10,000 plus successful SEO projects
By February 2014, five years since he walked out with Rs 5000, “I was making over Rs 5 crore a year.”
According to Shashank, working on several projects simultaneously – they take up around 300 projects every month on average, and this month they have 425 on hand – works to their advantage. Their target being the SEO segment, they rely on external factors like changing Google algorithms, fluctuating online marketing trends and so on. “When we work on a huge number of projects, we can invest more money and resources into research. And so, we can weather negative market conditions,” he says. According to his project manager Abhinav Sharma, at the last count up to February 2014, they have delivered more than 10,000 successful SEO projects.
Today, India Infotech has more than 4000 clients. “We have optimised our business model to generate maximum profits. So our revenue margins are very high as compared to any traditional company,” he says. “For our clients, we are the superheroes of SEO.”
Two-thirds of India Infotech's business comes from the US. The Wall Street Journal pegs the digital marketing industry at about $62 billion in the US alone. As more businesses are moving towards paid optimization / paid ads from organic optimisation, Shashank believes that social media optimisation is going to be revolutionary in digital marketing. “Video optimisation is the next big thing with the new generation of TVs like Apple TV, Chromecast etc. The video ads market is going to be huge,” he says.
As in most startups, hiring is a huge challenge. “The problem with me is that I trust people very easily and I trust blindfolded. I believe if you can’t trust people working with you, then you better don’t work with them.”
He has had quite a few bitter experiences with this. Nine months into the company, he found that his friends – also his first recruitees – were working for his rivals behind his back. “I sacked all 7 of them, and started building my team again. A similar incident happened a year back. I guess I haven't learnt enough from those experiences as I still trust my team blindly.”
“I am something of a perfectionist. So I expect reliability, discipline, energy, trust from the people with whom I work. I always make sure I work with an excellent team. No compromise. I don’t waste a single day with a person who is not fit for the company.”
Earlier, working 18 hours a day was a routine for Shashank. Now, he is not that aggressive at work. “At the company, now my job is to plan things, processes, methods of execution and so on. I still work for 8-10 hours a day. But I like to use my core strength in hacking and security to do some good for the planet and its people too, anonymously.”
Another thing that has changed is the look on his neighbour's face when he takes out one of his superbikes or shiny cars.
What did you learn from the story of this hacker-entrepreneur? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.