How SmartPocket is looking to make the future a wallet-less affair

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“Luck is when preparation meets opportunity,” said Roman philosopher Seneca. For 28 year old Mayank Shah that opportunity came knocking when he realized that his boss at Goldman Sachs harboured dreams of starting up, just like him. “Coffee breaks invariably turned into conversations on how technology was turning the world on its head, and the itch to play a bigger part in the tech revolution grew stronger.” Together they embarked on the adventure of a lifetime when they left the corporate world and started up with SmartPocket- a virtual wallet app that ‘disrupts wallets by making them faster and lighter.’ Mayank believes that in five years, thanks to SmartPocket, no one will need to carry wallets or ‘the zillion plastic cards.’

SmartPocket - A Loyalty Wallet

In a candid chat rife with timeless advice for entrepreneurs, Mayank tells YourStory why SmartPocket is both his wife and his extra-marital affair, the dark side of starting up, how his ‘overnight success story’ is a very long night and what is making the government of Karnataka take young start ups seriously.

You once said that while starting up, “The idea was the easy part.” What was the hardest?

There are two things that are extremely hard. Getting a product market fit, and to keeping the faith when things are going south.

We spent 6 months beta testing. Even before we launched the product, we kept going out with iterations which kept invalidating some of our assumptions. But after constant feedback and 6-8 iterations of product cycles, we have managed to get a good product market fit and our user base is growing at over 200% month on month. This is a constant cycle of building a business, frustrating at times but very rewarding.

We currently have 4 large Indian retailers including Puma and brands from Aditya Birla group and are currently on boarding a very large multi-retail brand. But this was not easy. I have spent hours waiting outside offices, people ignoring my calls, people deferring decisions (I once had a client who met me weekly for 6 months and didn’t convert) and getting quite a few rejections. This can take a pound of pound flesh and hurts emotionally. At these times, one questions one's path, life and everything; the answer is not 42, but it’s just keeping the faith and keep going. It helps to have great co-founder and team behind you.

Was there a particular incident or event that sparked the idea for SmartPocket?

So my co-founder Kiran Shastri was my boss in my previous life at Goldman Sachs. We were working on personal finance idea last year which we figured could only be a niche play. At that point we decided to shut it down as we wanted to play in much larger and scalable market.

During this time Kiran went to get a photo copy of his PAN card, and struggled with paying change. This got us thinking, with smart phones becoming ubiquitous in India why couldn’t phones function as a wallet. On delving further we discovered people are discarding loyalty cards, don't know how to optimize spends on their credit cards and are carrying photocopies rather original DL, pan card, Aadhar cards because they are afraid of pain it takes to get them re-issued if one loses them.

This is when we built out SmartPocket. Now just by registering your phone number not only do you get digital version of your loyalty cards but also can track points accumulated on them. It tells you about offers running on your credit card and helps you save money; SmartPocket also lets you carry scanned digital versions of your ID card. Now no more running to photocopier's for a PAN card copy. When you need Id proof just email or print from SmartPocket.

In a news profile NDTV wrote that your success was the inspiration for the Karnataka government to launch the Hackcelerator. Being at the helm of a multi-million dollar company at 28, yours is the kind of ‘overnight’ success that mainstream media likes to fetishize. What is the real experience like? How different is it from the glossy version that is usually propagated?

Firstly I wouldn't necessarily call ourselves successful yet. While we have had some great early wins, but in Frost's words we have “Miles to go before we sleep”.

Popular media tends to make starting up look very sexy, starting up is far from being a joy ride. The 'overnight' success you talk about took us 16 months and in that sense it was a very long night.

Starting-up can mean 70 hour work weeks, no social life, lots of stress and uncertainty, fear of failure, lot of rejections and a frugal life. (I used cycle 100km a week to save on fuel. Nothing like my previous life where I had weekends off to take my sports bike to race track for a spin). In a start-up zone life gets real and fast.

Kiran Shastri, Mayank Shah

But it’s not as bad as I make it sound. Start ups give you satisfaction of creating of something that doesn't yet exist, this gives a sense of true power and control. Starting up is a high, but contrary to popular belief, it doesn't come from large valuations but from mass acceptance of one's ideas and execution. No entrepreneur goes to sleep feeling happy that my company can be valued at millions, but if a user walks up to him and says your product is awesome, you will see him beaming for the rest of the week.

Also I doubt if GOK is building out a Hackcelerator after seeing us. They have seen multiple start-ups do really well and are seeing them bring in lot of revenue and create jobs, and success of Silicon Valley has reached government offices. I think this has inspired them to help the start-up eco-system.

Right now are you solely focused on taking SmartPocket to the next level or are there different ideas for other ventures you are exploring?

SmartPocket is both my wife and the extra-marital affair on the side. I am completely focussed on it, but within SmartPocket we are looking to expand our footprint to newer segments. We are looking at making customer engagement work for local businesses and are working with some players to prove our model.

How did you secure funding for SmartPocket? What was the initial capital required?

Thanks to our decently long corporate careers, we are comfortably bootstrapped. While we have seen investor interest, we made a conscious decision of not raising capital. We were focused on refining our product and building out a team. We have literally started to raise an angel round this week and are now talking to investors.

From starting up in your student days to now, what were some of the hardest challenges and failures you’ve had to deal with?

I have been programming since I was 12, so the computer science degree from RVCE was a breeze. I went to work straight out of college to Goldman Sachs, and while it was very hard work, I had great bosses, colleagues and awesome work culture which made life very smooth. The hardest challenges I have faced have been at SmartPocket.

I started selling our product to clients even before we had written a single line of code. Selling a dream which is just on paper was hard. One would hear people eloquently list out why SmartPocket wouldn't work. Thankfully one of them now is a happy customer.

The other challenge was building a team. When we started hiring we heard from a lot of people, everyone wants to associate with the sexiness of start-ups but they still wanted us to match their corporate salaries. At early stages that isn't feasible, one needs to understand start-ups are high risk-high reward game. You need to buy to the larger vision of what the company is building and make sacrifices now for deferred gratification. This culture doesn't exist yet. Again we got lucky and managed to hire some very smart people.

Looking back, is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Well so many things. I am sure that given we're just starting, that list is going to grow further.

We should have run our product-market fit iterations more rapidly. Our initial feedback net wasn't wide enough. While I started selling even before the product was in place, the product development took place in a bit of isolation. We should have taken different approaches to prototype testing. There are many learnings with respect to building the team.

Let’s talk next year and “Mayank and Kiran's book of mistakes” will certainly have more entries, but we'll be wiser, having learnt from those.

What do you want your life to look like in five years’ time?

In five years’ time, I'd hope to be basking in SmartPocket success story glow! So to that extent, it will be SmartPocket's five years that I'll want to talk about.

In five years, we'd want our user base to hit nine digit figures and more, be operating in all major markets globally and have most large businesses using SmartPocket to front their loyalty programs. More importantly we want to be the preferred platform for local businesses to digitally engage and provide services to their customers. That we think is a massive market to make millions of such businesses mobile.

What does the future look like for SmartPocket?

We are focused on getting more customers right now, along with building the full product suite. Being a customer facing platform, we hope to have millions of users on SmartPocket talking to their favourite brands and local businesses, using the app to save money, hold cards and basically replace their wallets with SmartPocket for most of the needs.

We also believe that this is a global opportunity, not just Indian. So we do hope to take SmartPocket to other geographies.

Check out SmartPocket here

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