What started as an interest in computer games in school developed into movie-making during college using mobile phones. Today, Santhosh Palavesh’s company UMM Digital is making nearly a million dollars a year and staying on top of the game.
We have heard stories of college dropouts who have made it big and built million-dollar businesses. And then, there are people who start small and make it big in life. With no hang-ups of a nerdiness or flashiness, here is the story of 29-year-old Santhosh Palavesh, an engineer who kept building on opportunities and became successful. After rejecting a Rs 14 lakh per annum job offer right after college, he turned his humble beginnings in business into a startup making a million dollars a year.
Santhosh’s interest in computer games during school days developed into movie-making in college, that too using just mobile phones. After college, he extended the movie-making experience into video ads for businesses, and set up his first company, UMM Studios, in 2008. Over the years, the business evolved not only into video ads but also catalogues, brochures, web design and UI/UX design.
Today, UMM provides digital ad agency services and product consulting services to the extent of getting on board as a technology partner. It is also into building its own products.
Santhosh’s journey started from Madipakkam, a suburb in Chennai, where he studied in an ordinary school. His father hails from Tirunelveli, and his mother, who is originally from southern Tamil Nadu, grew up in Mumbai. He says,
“My mom gave access to social life and importance to extracurricular activities.”
Santhosh says he was exposed to computers while in school and got immersed in playing computer games. “I had 2,500 games with me,” he explains, and his love for computer games was so intense that he would scurry across to Parry’s Corner, a neighbourhood shopping area, and buy latest games on CD from there.
“My selling experience started in Class 11 and 12,” he says.
He would install the games on his friends’ computers, and charge them Rs 20 per installation. After Class 12, he joined Mechanical Engineering at Velammal Engineering College. “I used to be a hyper, high-energy, bubbly kind of a person. Focusing on studies alone wasn’t very challenging. I wanted to jump out and do something,” he says.
When mobile phones with camera were launched, Santhosh started shooting videos and learned how to edit and add music to it. It was the time YouTube was launched, in 2008. This, he says, helped him to start making short films.
“I was the initial software maker and we published our short films on YouTube back then. But those films were very raw,” he describes.
Encouraged by the success, the team gave itself a name: Untitled Movie Makers. They consistently won top prizes in college cultural programmes, and the high point was when UMM was selected as a finalist three times at Saarang, the IIT-M’s annual cultural extravaganza.
Santhosh says he even tried his hand at movies as an assistant director and assistant cameraman. But after he completed his engineering, he began to wonder about his future.
“The typical middle-class thing hit towards the fourth year. I was thinking, is movies a proper career? Will it help build a career or will I lose my career?”
Around that time, TCS and Caterpillar offered him jobs in campus interviews. But Santhosh says he decided not to take it up as he didn’t want to get into a routine job. He also wanted to be his own boss. After a lot of thinking, he converted his movie-making experience into making video ads for businesses, and UMM Studios was born. His first assignment was his brother’s friend’s furniture business. He says,
“I shot the ad for Rs 400. That was my first earning as a business.”
His client liked his work and referred him for some more assignments, and then more referrals followed. By this time, Santhosh had rented his mother’s flat and paid her Rs 3,500 as rent. The overhead costs of the business came to Rs 7,000. It was a barebones existence, with earnings just enough to cover expenses.
As his client base increased, he began to seek help from his friends who were now securely placed in jobs. And as his business began to grow, some of them joined him, and his team began to swell. What started as a video ad shooting outfit grew into offering “branding, brand identity, logo design, catalogue design, brochure design, Web design, UI design, etc.” UMM Studios was a proper design studio by 2012.
When smartphones were launched in 2013, the new world of mobile apps opened up, Santhosh jumped at the opportunity, and offered to build mobile apps to his customers for their businesses. Within a year, he also got into digital marketing (SEO, Google ads, Facebook ads, etc.) to find a market for the products he developed.
“Back then, we were one of the very few entities doing it. By 2014-15, we were a 120-employee organisation. We were doing a lot of design for websites. The business was going good,” he says.
By 2015, Santhosh’s UMM Studios was primarily a digital marketing and mobile app development company, also offering design and branding solutions. Santhosh says that he somehow felt the digital marketing space would get crowded, and he would lose the edge.
“I thought what can take me to the million dollar track? Then we ventured into the space of startup and product consulting.”
UMM gained a lot of confidence after building apps for forex trading, stock trading, ecommerce delivery, logistics delivery, food delivery, retail and in the real estate space. He explains, “We had worked with a lot of companies with their brand identity, logo, website, and mobile applications. So, we had a lot of industry knowledge and exposure. Then, from 2015-16, we started our product consulting vertical.”
If a business comes up with just an idea, UMM now takes it to the market after intense research, and ascertaining if similar products exist, and how they work and if they are successful.
“We help them with the product architecture, develop UI/UX, do a prototype and launch it in the market. Then the digital marketing team helps them find customers. We take them through the entire product lifecycle,” says Santhosh.
With this experience, Santhosh says he has come across many top-notch founders such as Ritesh Agarwal of OYO, Shashank ND of Practo and Bhavish Aggarwal of Ola Cabs, whom he counts as his friends. He has also engaged with a lot of VCs, startups and corporates.
UMM currently operates out of a 5,000 sq. ft office in the Guindy Industrial Estate in Chennai. It also has an office in Bengaluru, and has registered its business in London, Dubai and Singapore.
Santhosh asserts, “UMM Digital is one of the top 20 digital consulting firms in India right now.” On the product development side, UMM just doesn’t stop with developing a product and launching it into the market. The company takes equity in the startup that is developing a product, effectively becoming the startup’s technology partner. Santhosh says,
“We are putting our skin in the game unlike other traditional software companies. We are not just about money,” he states, and wants to be a real technology partner.
It’s a natural progression from developing products for someone to developing one for yourself. UMM also launched its third vertical recently, and has developed a chat-based productivity app called ‘Task Work’. Using this app, a chat can be converted into a task. “We work on the go, and this will be useful to increase productivity,” Santhosh says.
The other product is born out of Santhosh’s own gaming interest. UMM is also developing an e-sports platform as many e-teams are being developed in the virtual world. The company currently operates in two verticals – as a Product lab, where ideas get built into sustainable businesses, and a Growth lab, which focuses on marketing and brand outreach of the tech products in the market.
One of its prominent clients, Belfrics, a blockchain fintech firm, approached UMM to design its website and logo, and get its branding done. The company had to do a lot of research to work on the website. While UMM did work with Belfrics for two years, by early 2017, Santhosh was also appointed as CIO of Belfrics.
Today, Belfrics is a $520 million company and operates in 12 countries. As its CIO, Santhosh gets to travel extensively to meet Belfrics’s customers. He says this has opened another line of work for him.
“I mentor startups and do a lot of public speaking as well. I speak at two colleges every month and I mentor 18 to 20 startups on go-to-market. There were times when I couldn’t pay salaries and I faced losses. I have met all kinds of people – from peon candidates to Presidents and Prime Ministers of countries. I cherish and enjoy what I do,” says Santhosh.