Nami Zarringhalam, Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Truecaller, talks candidly to YourStory on starting up, challenges of setting up a business, and growing in emerging markets.
In the world of startups, there are a few regions that stand out — Silicon Valley, Israel, Singapore. And, of course, hailing from Bengaluru, we know the number of startups that crop up in the city practically every day. But when you think of startups like Truecaller what comes to mind is a country in Europe that is surrounded by the Baltic Sea – Sweden.
In PandoDaily, an online publication, Stockholm, Sweden is described as the home to a wealth of exciting startups and tech companies. It boasts great technological startups like King in the field of gaming and Spotify in music.
But then, when the co-founder of Truecaller comes to Bengaluru, as someone who found great use in blocking all spam calls, one is curious to know how the founders, Nami Zarringhalam and Alan Mamedi, came up with the idea.
“Essentially, Truecaller has taken the old school phone book and transformed it completely, making sure nobody ever makes any intrusive calls to you,” says a 31-year-old marketing professional, who keeps getting calls from random strange numbers, everyday.
Founded in 2009, within a year Truecaller went from two million to 20 million users. Today, t Truecaller has 150 million plus users in India and 250 million plus users globally, and Alan has also tweeted that January 2017 was their strongest growth month ever. And paid user acquisition was at $0.
Friends since college days, 31-year-old Alan and Nami have founded a total of three startups: A home solutions furniture website, a recruitment firm that focused on how your boss is and finally Truecaller. Says Nami,
“When you know each other since your college days and end up doing things together, even your home and furnishings start looking similar. That is how we got the idea of the home furnishings website. The idea for the recruitment startup came from Alan’s personal experience of having a tough boss. We have sites that focus on the employee but what about your manager?”
With Truecaller, the duo struck gold. They were surprised that at a time when social media platforms like Facebook were taking the world by storm and smartphones were penetrating the world, one couldn’t find out who was calling.
Alan also faced this problem at his workplace where he would get continuous calls but wouldn’t be able to identify the number. When they began work on Truecaller, they assumed that it would do well in Sweden. But then a friend of Alan one day called and said how big Truecaller was in Lebanon. It was then that they decided to pump some investments and grow in Jordan. Nami says,
“In Sweden we have a population of nine million, so it seemed like an easier task to get the good old phone directory online. It was absurd that every time we would get a call, we had to Google to figure out country codes and guess who the call was from.”
Very much like WhatsApp, Truecaller has seen considerable growth in key emerging markets like the Middle East and Asia. The app has created a way to break the mobile silos. It has seen great growth in countries that have a high and growing smartphone penetration.
Initially, India wasn’t even a market for Truecaller, but today both Alan and Nami are excited to be in Bengaluru and plan to build a development centre here. The team also has Sequoia India’s Shailesh Lakhani on its board. Truecaller has also launched Truemessenger specifically for India, which lets users block unnecessary messages.
As a business, Truecaller is growing in both B2B and B2C segments. On the B2B side, it is focused on Truecaller Priority. Says Nami, “While we all hate the advertising phone calls, there are some company calls that aren’t spam. You do not want to block such calls; it is for those that we came up with Truecaller Priority.”
Nami calls India one of their main markets. Despite all its current troubles, Nami believes that India has a vibrant startup ecosystem, especially in Bengaluru, and that the talent available here is phenomenal.
Speaking of the dearth of investors in the Indian startup ecosystem, Nami says that the situation is similar across the globe. Considerable amounts of money have been pumped in companies. While some work, some do not and many go through tough times, he says, adding,
“It is not an India-only phenomenon. The tech startup ecosystem from Europe, Silicon Valley and China felt the chill at the end of 2015. We felt it too and it is unfair to compare this period to early 2015, as that was a period where things were less complicated. And it isn’t the case here. India has many great companies. We will continue to invest in the India market and the event in the end of March in Delhi will make it clearer what our India plans are.”
Truecaller has raised nearly $100 million funding in six rounds from over eight investors. According to Crunchbase, Truecaller raised $2.83 million funding in January this year. Today, Truecaller has 150 million plus users in India and 250 million plus users globally.
Nami says when they started they we were very naïve.
“If we would have known everything we would go through, we wouldn’t have done it. The journey is harder than getting started. So, the specific challenges that companies go through are very unique to the product they have and the organisation they have. In our case, it is has been everything like having a product that has been growing in emerging markets, when no one cared about what was happening in emerging markets.”
Earlier, the challenges were more about hustling, now it is more about how do you build teams across the globe that follow the values that you initially founded the company on. Nami adds that they are setting up an office in Bengaluru, so today the challenge is how they make sure that the new blood that joins in have the same value system.
“Challenges of building a business is never easy. We had founded two companies before, with the first company it was hard to let go. When we built the home interior and furniture website we had something in mind but along the way you see all the obstacles and suddenly you find it difficult to let go.”
But then they realised that they needed to have new 'eyes' in the company. So with Truecaller, they got an external CTO and also the board of advisors. Nami adds that they not only contribute to the evolution of your company and but also its founders.
“We were really stubborn and hard-to-work with people. While as entrepreneurs you need to be stubborn, you also need to know the fact that you don’t know everything. You should follow your gut feeling, but in a few cases it makes sense to listen to people who have made the journey that you haven’t done before."
Nami recalls that initially in 2009, they could not do much with their product, and there was not enough as everyone was new to smartphones including themselves. But in terms of building a business and making the values stick in the walls how do you get that? Nami says that there were people who had done that and knew how to do that.
“It is my number one suggestion – have the right people around you. Our Chairman Stefan Lenhammer, who had run a real estate investment firm and had nothing to do with smartphones or tech, but he knew how to build a business.”