One of the most disruptive tech companies in the world has roots in a slum in Delhi

By Francesca Ferrario|18th Aug 2016
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He was standing on stage at the Pioneers Festival in Vienna under a big screen that was showing him taking a selfie with a virtual Snoop Dog. A few minutes later, he was chasing objects with his phone to make them come to life through his app Blippar and to extract information from them. That is how, pointing at a lipstick, he found out the potentially perfect shade of red for his lips, and pointing at a banana, he learnt the healthiest recipe for banana pancakes.

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Ambarish Mitra is very serious about what he does but has the ability to explain it in a very entertaining way. In fact, behind the fake bombs he launched on the audience through the screen of his phone and the celebrities popping up for selfies, there is a company which made it to the top 20 of CNBC's Top Disrupter List in 2015, Bloomberg's list of top UK Business Innovators in 2016, and Business Insider’s list of most disruptive tech companies, also in 2016. Blippar is an app that uses augmented reality and machine learning to allow users to interact with any object through smartphones and other devices. Ambarish and his Co-founder Omar Tayeb launched it in 2011.

Before getting to this point, Ambarish had a quite novel-like story, which definitely adds to the fascination of Blippar. He was born in Kolkata and grew up in Dhanbad, until he decided to run away from home when he was a teenager due to a conflict with his parents. He settled in a slum in Delhi, where he sustained himself by selling magazines door-to-door and working in a tea stall.

Then, inspired by the strong role that women have played in his family for generations and pushed by the reality of gender inequality around him, in 1998, a 19-year-old Ambarish created Womeninfoline, one of India’s early online communities for women. With it, he won an e-business competition, built a company that went public a couple of years later, and earned him enough money to try his luck abroad. He set off to London, where he finished university and, after a few years, a joke about Queen Elizabeth coming to life from a 20 pound note led to the inception of Blippar.

A story of dualities

The reason Ambarish decided to take part in an e-business competition while living in a slum was a great passion for tech transmitted by his father. Paradoxically, his father was also one of the main reasons for Ambarish’s decision to run away from home.

“It’s contradictory right?” admits Ambarish, “If your dad teaches you to be an Olympic swimmer, your fitness has gone up, your muscles are ready, except you decide to join Crime Scene with the FBI. And your father could be disappointed and say, ‘I trained you so hard and you chose this weird profession.’ But the preparation for the Olympics and for the FBI could be the same.”

His father used to hand him Business Week and Fortune since he was very young. He used to give him reads like The Road Ahead, “and all the kinds of books that, normally, a 20 or 25-year-old would read.” Ambarish had posters of Bill Gates in his room and says he was familiar with Rupert Murdoch’s business style, as well as Richard Branson’s.

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“My dad had a very big influence on me. In fact, he was the first one who taught me to question things,” Ambarish says and jokes, “That is the very reason I did badly in school.” As it happens, the love for tech his father very successfully transmitted to him did not help Ambarish overcome his scepticism for scholastic teaching. His failure in an engineering examination was the stroke that broke the camel’s back. It amplified his parents’ fury and he left home.

Ambarish is now on good terms with his family.

Tech in a slum?

The challenges of developing a tech product in a slum are quite complex, from the lack of reliable electricity to learning how to code. Ambarish, who taught himself how to program, explains, “I was already quite proficient with web technologies and there were good tools at the time. Microsoft, Macromedia... They sound very 1990s, but they were cool. Also, I am not underestimating myself, but I think it was easy to do things in the first dot com boom. It’s tougher now because there are so many people doing so many things. Back then, we were a total minority of people. It was like trying to launch a space program today. There are tools available, but only a few.”

Above all, Ambarish continues, the real problem was finding food regularly. “After you find shelter and secure food for the day, everything else looks very doable,” he shares.

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Championing gender equality

Settled in a slum with an irregular, low salary; in touch with home only through his sister; not too sure of getting food regularly; and with no clear prospects for the future. In such a situation, one wonders why Ambarish decided to focus on women in developing his first tech company.

“I grew up in a very equal environment. We were not rich, but were a classic lower middle class family. Very honourable, with very good family values. And when I left home, I realised India, even now, is extremely unequal. My friends and people around me were very biased when referring to the opposite gender, and it was very shocking given how I had been brought up.”

He goes on, “My mother is a painter and musician, and my sister runs one of the biggest classical dance schools in America (she’s an entrepreneur too). My grandmother was the one who influenced us so greatly on the issue of gender equality. She was degree educated in the 1920s and the first lady in Kolkata to ride a scooter with short hair, which was the ultimate show of rebellion in those days!”

The next chapter: The UK

When asked about why he chose London, Ambarish says that,

As a Bengali, I felt a big attraction towards British culture. It’s a big part of Kolkata. The US was not a popular choice in those days. The UK was more about culture, art and theatre, and familiar enough in my imagination. I thought I’d be far away, but not that far away.

He shares that he left with no plans at all, “There were these 20 days in my life after I exited womeninfoline when I decided to leave India because it wasn’t a country ready for my ambitions. And I was right, because the Indian tech market really opened up in 2010, 10 years later!”

He enrolled at LSE, one of the top universities in the social sciences and economics, where he had 27 percent attendance, “because I was again doing other things,” he says. He managed to graduate with Honours, but according to him, his greatest achievement was in making friends who are, today, still his closest ones.

The big Blippar jump

It was in London that, a few years later, Ambarish met his great friend Omar Tayeb, with whom he started developing Blippar. It started with a joke about Queen Elizabeth coming up to life out of a £ 20 note and became one of the most disruptive tech companies currently in the market. The technology behind it is quite sophisticated, but the business model the team applied is quite simple. When customers find the Blippar symbol on items they want to buy, they can scan the brand logo and interact with the products through their smart devices. Blippar reached more than 5 million users three years after its launch and over 750 brands adopted it for marketing purposes. In 2014, Blippar acquired the Dutch augmented reality company Layar, formerly its main competitor, and it now claims more than 50 million users overall.

Ambarish with co-founders Omar Tayeb and Steve Spencer
Ambarish with co-founders Omar Tayeb and Steve Spencer

But still Indian

Ambarish is firmly based in London, but says that, “The place you are born and where your family is from has a connection which is inside you. You cannot avoid it.” He still has his Indian passport and Blippar has started to expand in India.

“We opened last year in Gurgaon and Bengaluru . We are working with many brands focusing on the Indian market.” Blippar started to create augmented reality for brands to generate revenue, but now are applying their technology for a number of purposes, including education.

India, at the moment, is not even one of the top 7 of Blippar’s markets, which include, among others, the US, Netherlands, Turkey, Japan and Singapore.

India is a very important market, for its size and for its fast growth. But you need a Mumbai strategy, a Delhi strategy, a Bangalore strategy and so on. It is way more fragmented than what is believed for reasons of language, but especially of connectivity. Despite its rapid growth, a lot of people don’t have a smartphone, so how do we target them?

And why not Eurindian?

Ambarish says, “There is an opportunity for Indian founders to tap into the European market. There’s very cool technology in India but it’s too localised, many people think narrow. The European market is very open to adopting these things, faster than in India actually. Also, now it’s easier to move around and keep a team in Europe while being based in India.”

This directly calls attention to diversity, which is a fundamental component of Blippar, “We have over 75 nationalities among our 350 employees. It’s not a thing that you can plan, obviously, because you want a smart team for your product more than one which is friendly to a specific country. But I think tech is an industry which is naturally diverse because people who are coding are doing it in English in any country in the world. The language of code is universal.”

Ambarish adds that, “Gender diversity is an area which requires even more attention. Half of the world’s brains are underestimated and, out of that, only 25 percent is utilised.” Loyal to his upbringing, Ambarish is still very concerned with the topic that marked the beginning of his career. “At Blippar, we organise programs and mentorships. There are women bodies of entrepreneurship that we host for free, supplying office spaces that we have around the world. We encourage women to have a voice and push forward, not as a separate program but as the DNA of the business.”

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Meditating on the varied mix of choices and people that have played a part in his life, Ambarish says,

I don’t think that, if I was in a fully functional environment, I would have gotten to where I am now. Because sometimes, when you’re in solitude and you’re facing the night sky and you have got a lot of time to observe things from within and to think on where you belong, you obtain a big silence which brings out a lot of deeper thoughts. Age doesn’t matter. Identity and who you are matters and I sort of really, truly discovered myself because I had no noise in my life. There was no friend, no competition, no degree, no girlfriend problem, and no parental expectation. There was me, a very young boy facing the world, and a lot of isolated time.

Blippar

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