[Techie Tuesdays] Amit Agarwal, the man who brought professional tech blogging to India
Two hundred and six kilometers south of Delhi lies Agra, one of the most populated cities of Uttar Pradesh. Referred to as Agravena in the ‘Maharbharata’ and home to one of the biggest tourist destinations of the word, Taj Mahal, Agra does not feature in the list of top 10 cities in India when it comes to technology or tech talent. Yet, more than a million people in India and almost thrice the size of it globally, keep themselves updated with technology, owing to something created here.
Amit Agarwal is a common name in India, Labnol is not. But in the last 11 years, this equation has changed considerably. Labnol.org is a technology blog started in 2004 by Amit Agarwal, India’s first professional blogger. A techie at heart and a writer by virtue of his profession, Amit has a lot more to offer. In this week’s Techie Tuesday, Amit speaks with YourStory, sharing his journey so far, his success story and the decisions which have brought him where he is today.
An engineer in a business family
Belonging to a business family, Amit had an inclination towards joining the family business after growing up. Though he was a studious child topping his class, he was never interested in computers or engineering. Mathematics was Amit’s favorite subject and that helped him decide to choose engineering after his school. He was also looking for flexibility to do a lot of things and hence medicine was ruled out. Like a typical joint family, the women in his family wanted him to stay back in Agra while the men encouraged him to do whatever interested him the most. He decided to choose engineering because it would give him more flexibility in the future unlike medicine. Even at IIT-Roorkee(then REC), he opted for Computer Science engineering because that’s what students with good ranks were opting for.
Academically, things didn’t change much for Amit at college, where he was among the toppers in his batch at the end of the first year. He recalls,
When I got a computer, my interest was not towards coding but on the software installation side. I would be really curious to know what happens internally, what files are escalated or modified due to installation of a software in the system. Today also, I’m pretty much doing the same thing.
Amit fondly remembers his final year of college when he worked on a project at Maruti (Gurgaon factory) on inventory management,
“At that time, NetScape navigator was the only browser and desktops were running on UNIX operating system. We had shared emails (three people, one email account) and with only two computers in the library, one had to wait for a long time to get a chance to work on the system or check emails.”
First (and last) job
Amit graduated in 1999 with an above average academic performance and joined ADP Inc in Hyderabad where he worked on database for five years. He was working for clients like Goldman Sachs and Meryll Lynch on capturing transaction, reporting capability running on UNIX, Pearl and PHP. It was a 70-80 member team when Amit joined and his work was recognized by people in a short span of time. After two years, he was leading a team and his focus shifted on management rather than coding. Amit says,
One of the best outcomes of my job at ADP was that I made good friends. At my work, I was putting a lot of efforts, including night-out coding sessions. It was a huge learning experience for me.
At ADP, Amit learnt a lot about how to deal with clients, teammates and people in general. He admits,
I couldn’t have learnt this in the family business. What I’m doing today is all based on what I learnt during that time. In college, the focus was on theory, but with actual live projects, the much-needed practical knowhow came.
Birth of India’s first professional blogger
Amit always wanted to stay back with his family, but also kept his options open. After spending five years at ADP, he was all set to go back to his roots, Agra. He also got married around that time. Amit recalls,
When I moved back, the only option I had was to start working as a freelancer. Blogging was extremely new in 2004 and it was a very different environment without social media and other online networking/social tools.
In 2004, Amit became India’s first professional blogger and founded Labnol. There’s no particular reason for choosing the name Labnol besides that it was unique (unlike his name). One of the most read blog aggregator (Indian filter blog) in 2005, Desipundit picked a lot of content written by Amit and he got the much needed reach. He participated in blog camps across various cities and got noticed because of the uniqueness of being the only one blogging as a profession.
Labnol over the years
Labnol’s focus on consumer software has not changed over the last 11 years. He takes us through the evolution at Labnol,
The style of writing has improved a lot. Earlier, it was text-heavy whereas now we have more visuals, (audio, video, and animation). Long form writing is also common on Labnol now. I’ve been very clear about writing about software/products based on my own experiences rather than going by news/sources. Though Google Photos was announced earlier, only after spending a month’s time using it, I was convinced to write an in-depth review about it.
According to Similarweb, Labnol gets almost three million visits in a month. Amit says,
“Forty percent of my readers are based in USA and around 30 percent in India. Remaining 30 percent readers are spread across other geographies.”
Labnol started making money after a year of incorporation. Today, there are multiple sources of revenue for Amit which includes Google ad-sense, contextual ad networks, direct ads through Blogads & IDG Technetworks.
A techie at heart and millions in pocket
Amit considers himself a technologist at heart who wants to create stuff. In his own words,Technology is my life, I’m always thinking about it, even when I’m taking a shower. It helps us in becoming more productive and knowledgeable.
Amit had always enjoyed building a tool/software to solve a problem. For him, it’s an added advantage to have a blog and the massive reach. He has worked on several projects in the last two years when his focus has shifted from writing to building as well. These include single page apps; tools enabling MP3, transcription on web browser, podcast gallery – podcast on Google drive, and any others. He has written multiple scripts/apps around Google doc/drive. Amit sources ideas from Reddit (ZeroDollarMovies project), friends, users and forums.
One of my friends was facing issues with tatkal booking because of the short window for booking tickets. I thought of making the required fields auto fill to solve his problem. When I released it for the public, travel agents across the country purchased it and it’s used extensively now.
He follows a freemium model of monetization for these, where some of the features will be free and more can be availed at a premium. Labnol’s revenue is in the range of a few crores per year at the moment.
Learning of a decade
Amit thinks that one of his biggest shortcomings was the inability to build a team which could have helped him in the expansion (and coverage) in other areas. He shares the following advice for the techies and online communities:
- A sound code is less about writing the code and more about the thought process which goes behind making it scalable.
- Keep things as simple as possible. I prefer products which can do only one thing but do it very well. For example, Dropbox.
- For consumer product companies and brands, it helps if they are more communicative. A lot of perception is built and ruined based on how they handle consumer problems and queries.
- Suddenly, there’s an urge to go mobile-only ditching the desktop. I’m not sure if it’s a right approach.
What defines India’s top tech blog?
- Only focus on creating stuff you love and which you would use yourself (and recommend to family/friends).
- Build a solution to solve real world problems. There’s no dearth of them.
- If you’re planning to do blogging full time, please rethink. A lot of factors which are not in your control will come into play.
- Know your limitations. Indianbloggers.org maintains a list of active bloggers in India. It keeps an account of the blogs which have phased out over time. Sometimes, the blogger loses interest, at other times he/she gets a lucrative job offers, or eventually gives up blogging for some reason.
- Money should be the secondary part. Passion is priority, business is second. It has helped Amit write what he liked and brought him this far.
- Be honest with the audience and do not pretend to know things you don’t know.