It was a motley crew that assembled in the packed room at the Vodafone Partnering for Growth: Vodafone IoT and CloudStore for Startups Masterclass on Day 2 of Techsparks 2017.
The Masterclass held by Govindaraj Avasarala, Vice President-Propositions, Vodafone, had attendees of varying backgrounds including engineering, data science, computer science, electronics, and even arts and commerce, in a nod to the growing significance of IoT in all our lives.
The interactive session, which saw active participation from the audience, was an in-depth look at some of the key learnings that Vodafone has gained over the years which startups in the IoT space could leverage for their growth journey.
The buzz around IoT
Govindaraj started by saying that these are exciting times for startups, especially for those driven by technology. “We believe the future is already here. We are in the midst of the perfect storm. It’s there all around us and many of you will be working with products that include virtual reality and drones,” he said. He added that Vodafone used drones to deliver the first iPhone 7 last year in New Zealand and Germany.
While IoT maybe a hot topic now, according to Govindaraj the concept behind the technology can be traced back to World War II when signals were used to detect whether overhead aircraft were friendly or hostile. “Today, it’s not only cars that have IoT but cows as well,” he said, indicating how far we have come and how widespread its application is. Over the course of the session, he shared how Vodafone had tried, sometimes failed, and succeeded in their deployment of IoT technology. The learnings were not just technical, but also about how and when to go to market as well. He even highlighted the importance of design, getting the legal and compliance aspects right, and addressed concerns over security.
Security vs privacy
Illustrating how startups need to focus on design, he gave the example of one of the first IoT-based pilots from Vodafone. “It was an ID card that doubled as a safety device. It had five buttons on to which you could map your emergency contacts and an SOS button. The first group we shared this card with was the women in the Vodafone office,” he said. He added that despite launching the product with great pride, a corporate rebranding changed the card’s design orientation from vertical to horizontal. “This obviously created an issue, and we should have considered this before issuing the cards.”
The second issue that came up was the employees’ concerns over privacy. “The card had been issued as a safety measure for women. But soon amidst the appreciation for the effort, we were getting feedback over how it led to a privacy breach as the employees’ location could be traced at any point of time.” Vodafone addressed this issue by appointing a nodal team to respond to a crisis, and removing access for their line managers.
Learning: When you design a product and take it to market, adoption may be low not because your technology does not work but because users are concerned about other important things.
Govindaraj also stressed the importance of knowing what piques an audience’s interest. Referring to an electrification project that Vodafone was a part of, he highlighted that a majority of India still lived in rural areas and many Indians still had no access to electricity. He said a Kenyan company M-Kopa initiated a project to build 10 W panels on the roofs of the villagers’ homes.
The project was initiated in a village 80 km from Mumbai. Each grid was connected to four bulbs and the villagers could charge their phones via USB as well. They decided to adopt the concept of selling ‘mini-sachets’ of power (like shampoo) at a rent of Rs 5 a week to popularise it with the villagers. Payments could be made via Mpesa or any other wallet. While the team thought that the concept of charging the phone via USB would help the pilot pick up as it would save the villagers the long trek to a nearby town where electricity was available to charge their phones, they discovered that this was not the primary reason for adoption. It picked up when more households with television sets joined in.
Learning: Distribution is important in a country like India, especially if you want to sell things on scale. Pilot it first, and you are bound to find something amazing or shocking even.
While explaining how IoT can lead to unplanned benefits, he cited the example of market coolers that are in use in shops across the country. He said there are about 2.5 million coolers in the market today. The issue companies like Coke and Pepsi face is that the assets are in the field and checking on them required a physical visit. Each visit cost the company up to Rs 200 for personnel to ensure that coolers were not being used to stock competitors’ products or a different product altogether. However, introducing IoT changed the game. “We put a device that captured every detail, including how many times the door was closed and opened, temperature of the cooler and even if the owner was trying to move the cooler. An alert was sent to the company each time any of these things happened. This really helped with managing these business-critical assets. A surprising outcome was that it led to an increase in sales. The minute the stock was depleting, replenishments would be shipped, which then led to an increase in sales,” he said.
Learning: IoT products are actually about business transformation. It’s important to have your ROI model in place. It’s important to consider all factors if you are building products for this market. It’s not always technology that will make you fail.
“Ultimately, it is about business transformation. It’s not just about the devices you make, but about the outcomes. We cannot do everything ourselves. It’s about the ecosystem working together. The IoT ecosystem is nascent in India but a lot of skillsets are flourishing here,” he said in conclusion.