With VsnapU, Raipur's Parminder Sahni is all set to let loose his band of photographers to capture, err, your memories for you.
For some, there’s never a first time. Whether it is attempting a new task or travelling to another city, a few people manage it with such ease as if they have been there, done that.
For the past one year, 29-year-old Parminder Sahni has carried a mental map of startup city Bengaluru, where, he was told: “gali, gali mein startup hai” (there’s a startup in every lane). Sitting in his travel office in faraway Raipur, he often dreamt of walking in the city's bylanes shaking hands with entrepreneurs and investors.
Thus, when he first landed in what is known as the Silicon Valley of India, Parminder could smell promise in the air. “I longed to be part of Bangalore’s startup ecosystem. I wanted to attend the frequent meetups that are organised and visit the wonderful co-working spaces that encourage collaborations. It felt like a dream come true,” he tells me.
Just off the boat, Parminder has already found a firm footing in the startup land. He attends meetups on a regular basis listening to other entrepreneurs and talking about his own startup, VsnapU, which, he says, is an Uber for photographers.
I met him at one such meetup recently where he sat right in the front row listening to the ‘guru’ of bootstrapping Pallav Nadhani talk about the virtues of building a business without borrowed money.
Between samosa and chai, he told me, “It is difficult to find this kind of interaction in Raipur.” Having grown up in the central Indian city, now the capital of Chhattisgarh, Parminder, like many small-town entrepreneurs, is starved of guidance and mentorship.
“All cities in India are not meant for startups,” he says, adding, “but there is no city which can limit entrepreneurs. One can start up from anywhere and land up selling to all. Be it in India or to the world. This is technology-enabled digital India.”
Four years ago, he had set up his travel business Travelwithsmile.com with a borrowed laptop, hoping he would be able to disrupt the travel space. His business handled international tourists and arranged for their tour in India and Sri Lanka. “I do not know what went wrong, but it could not scale up like a startup. Though it is running successfully, it has become like any other small travel agency business,” he says.
Unable to contain his entrepreneurial spirit, Parminder was always in search of an opportunity to make a go at tech entrepreneurship. And then a chance meeting with a newly-married couple changed things for him. “I got a query from a friend who wanted a photographer while he was on his honeymoon. This turned out to be an expensive affair costing him Rs 15,000,” he says.
That's when the idea of VsnapU came to him. “I discussed with my co-founders Kaushik Singh, who looks at all things technical, and Shahnawaz Sadique, who takes care of marketing, and we began work on this new tech platform to aggregate photographers.” The idea was to give easy, cheap, and hassle-free access to photographers wherever the user wanted.
Parminder was scheduled to fly to Dubai for a travel trade fair but cancelled it last minute and used the money instead to develop his dream startup last year in September.
He picked Munnar in Kerala as his first stop as it is a top choice for many travellers and he knew a few hotel owners there. “I hired two local photographers and two marketing guys, one from IIM Bodh Gaya and another from IIT Kharagpur.” Parminder, who dropped out of a management college in Raipur, says he always had a fascination for people from premium institutions.
“I started training my mind to fight any eventuality and validate my new idea,” he adds, revealing that he treated his foray into this new business like a war. “It is funny but I would seek inspiration from Hindi movie actor Sunny Deol’s film Border. In my war too, winning is the only option,” he grins, and we exchange a few laughs.
But things did not turn out as he had expected in Munnar. The hotel owners did not buy into the concept. “We had to change our plans on the spot,” he says. They, instead, set up their promotional kit comprising standees and other marketing collaterals at a few tourist landmarks. A family from Jalandhar signed up to become their first customers, followed by two couples on their honeymoon.
“Traction rolled out and we also started getting online booking for scheduled photoshoots in Kerala,” he states with a satisfied smile.
Parminder had made up his mind to set up shop in Bengaluru. “If I have to make VsnapU into a brand to reckon with I needed to be in this city first,” he says. He appreciates the fact that Aurvind Lama, Founder of Travelyaari.com, was kind enough to let him operate from his office. “We are currently bootstrapped but are looking to raise funds to expand to the top four metros. Angel funding will help us manage the workforce and marketing for the product,” he reveals.
Parminder’s business plan includes reaching out to people by tying up with large hotel chains, travel agencies, shops that sell birthday accessories and cake shops, and watering holes like pubs and nightclubs. “We are not competing with the mobile phone camera. I believe selfies are not enough to make a lasting memory like a high-quality picture can. It is for posterity,” he answers my question on why anyone would want to hire a photographer these days.
VsnapU primarily caters to the wedding and travel segment where people still prefer to hire professional photographers. At present, it has 55 photographers across India on its platform. “We charge clients between Rs 2,000 for an hour of shoot and around Rs 8,000 for the whole day. Compare this to what professional photographers charge, and you can see the value proposition,” Parminder says, adding that he keeps around 30-40 percent margins to make money.
There are a dime a dozen players in this space, especially in the wedding market, but what I find compelling about VsnapU is Parminder’s chutzpah. In the first year of operations of his first business (Travelwithsmile) he had clocked a turnover of Rs 1 crore without any prior experience in running a business. After that, his parents stopped worrying about their son taking the wrong path.
Perhaps influenced by the startup lingo in Bengaluru, Parminder already has a line to go with his introduction: “From a businessman in Raipur to a startup founder in Bengaluru.” But for me, his journey is best captured in one word -- daring.