[Techie Tuesday] From building a group messaging product on SMS to leading Gojek’s Tech Centre - Sidu Ponnappa’s coding journey
Sidu Ponnappa, the tech entrepreneur who currently heads the Gojek India Engineering Centre, has a riveting story that speaks of his passion for technology, innovation, risk-taking, and entrepreneurship. He is also a part of the company’s board.
His 11-year-long experience as a tech entrepreneur has many lessons — on failures, entrepreneurship, and leadership — for anyone aspiring to strike out on their own. Still, if there’s one overriding takeaway from his story, then it’s undoubtedly Sidu’s relentless drive to successfully build and scale his company, until his eventual exit to Indonesia-based on-demand multi-service platform GoJek.
As the MD of Gojek India Engineering Centre, Sidu Ponnappa may not have many coding opportunities now, but coding has been an integral part of his life. His fell in love with computers at the mere age of six, playing old DOS-based games on his friend’s computer.
By the time he was in Class 6, he had evolved into a fairly good BASIC programmer and by the end of Class 10, Sidu was deep into front-end programming.
His entrepreneurial career began in 2006 while he was working at ThoughtWorks with Activ Mobs, a bookkeeping software that pivoted to a group texting service, on SMS. That has always been Sidu’s speciality - making the most of the available tech.
That’s not all. His experience and work spans across several areas - from a consultancy startup to building a code learning software, and even a marriage bureau.
In a conversation with YourStory, Sidu Ponnappa tells us what led him to computers, his philosophy in life, and more.
The only choice - computer engineering
Born in Delhi, Sidu’s father worked in public sector insurance. His mother Kaveriamma, who was in the NCC before getting married, had a huge influence on his life.
“My life, philosophy, and all its values have been shaped by two women: my mother and my father’s sister. My mother, a girl from Coorg, would climb peaks like K2, and was always there in Republic Day parades. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi knew her by name. My aunt was the first woman to join the IFS, and even fought a court case against the Government of India for equal rights for both genders in government posts.”
Much of his personal drive and force today comes from his admiration and respect for the two strong, independent, and driven women.
Sidu studied computer science until he was in Class 12 but faced a career battle with his father. While he wanted to pursue computer science engineering, his father wanted him to take up management.
So, when it came to selecting electives at RV College of Engineering, Bengaluru, Sidu took up industrial engineering, which had both management and engineering.
Soon, he realised that he was not good at things he didn’t like. Sidu tells us, “My grades kept plummeting and I told my dad that it isn’t going to go well. Because of my academic performance, the only way forward was to switch into a relatively new college. So, I moved to CMRIT, Whitefield, Bengaluru, in my third semester.”
Once there with a course of his choice, things started to look up.
Looking back, Sidu believes that engineering was a waste of time, especially the way it is taught in India. He says that while the curriculum and textbooks are great, the teachers have never really coded.
“They had different career aspirations, which didn’t work out and teaching was the last resort. Computer science has a large applied component but the course’s approach has little to do with application,” Sidu says.
He also believes that engineering has few coders and hackers, and says, “Every batch has two to four hackers, who are serious hands-on builders and will always code. And at the end of the course, only about four out of a class of 108 could solve a programming challenge.”
The first startup
Sidu continued to code and build tech products during his college days. In the early 2000s, he built a P2P file transfer system with his friend and future co-founder Akshat Choudhary.
While Sidu bagged a job with Indus Consulting during college placements, the company shut shop halfway through his final year. At the time, Akshat and a few other of his friends were already placed at ThoughtWorks.
One of the few companies that didn’t care about marks or the college you came from, ThoughtWorks’ hiring strategy lies on an applicant’s coding prowess, and Sidu was hired.
He worked at ThoughtWorks from 2005 until January 2010, but that didn’t stop Sidu and Akshat from working on different startup ideas. The duo launched Activ Mobs in 2006, a bookkeeping software that used SMS as a medium.
“Akshat wanted a bookkeeping software that he could use on the phone. This was the pre-smartphone era so we built one that worked on SMS. We would text our expenses, the service noted and uploaded it, and at the end of the month, it gave us the breakdown,” Sidu explains.
But within six months, the two realised that the product didn’t have a market and decided to pivot. They worked around it and launched a group messaging service, similar to groups on WhatsApp or any other instant messaging service - but on SMS.
Sidu says, “At the time, building groups on SMS was a value-added feature in some networks, but it was insanely expensive.”
The pivot worked and in two months, Activ Mobs had over 60,000 users in Bengaluru.
“A computer in Akshat’s bedroom acted as the server. Every time it went down, we would call his mother and ask her to restart the system,” Sidu recalls. The startup worked around a GSM modem, running on a Spice Prepaid plan.
Sidu says people were using the product to discuss football matches really late into the night. Without realising, the team had built a rudimentary social network.
This was in 2006, a time when Twitter was just starting and Sidu says the team saw it as competition.
He says, “I saw them as competitors and thought there was no way I was going to sign up. This went on for three years. Today, I realise even if there is a competition, you sign up to see how they work.”
But while Activ Mobs was finally going great, the burn rate became unbearable. Finally, overloaded with 60,000 messages, Spice ended up pulling the whole plan down and the startup was shut for four months.
A necessary break
When Activ Mobs was back up, the team had 1,000 active users within the first 24 hours - a testament to its relevance. But the startup needed a boost.
“We needed a larger deal with a telco. So Akshat and I decided to pull our savings and work with a bulk SMS service,” Sidu says.
But his mom was diagnosed with cancer in July 2008 and Sidu had to leave the startup. He spent the next two years working and helping his mother. By the end of 2009, his mother’s condition had deteriorated and she needed full-time assistance. So, in January 2010, Sidu went on unpaid leave and, eventually, resigned from ThoughtWorks in March.
“By then, I was thinking about starting up again. We had already had a bad experience. We realised that whatever we do, it had to be self-funded. In the end, we decided on a consulting venture and turn that into a cash cow to build tech products,” he says.
So, in April 2010, Sidu founded C42 Engineering with a few friends. In June 2010, Sidu’s mother passed away, after which he joined C42 full-time.
“At the time, we really looked down on consulting and saw it as a necessary evil. But within 18 months, we were at a million-dollar run rate. Our clientele included companies like Flipkart, and a few early-stage Silicon Valley companies. By mid-2011, we had enough cash to fund our product. That is when we decided to build RubyMonk in the e-learning space,” he says.
It was when US-based code learning startup Codeacademy was quite big and there was a boom in coding. While RubyMonk was structurally similar, it had an added bonus - it allowed you to run your code on a browser.
This differentiator set them apart as browser support wasn’t common in the day. Even the teacher was designed differently, inspired by the likes of Shifu and Oogway of the Kung Fu Panda franchise.
“We took the product live and I posted it on Hacker News. It was 6 am and we had been working all night. I was about to go out for a smoke. But then the likes started going up on our product. We didn’t take a break for the next two hours,” Sidu grins .
While RubyMonk was an instant success, its growth began flattening for the next several months. The founding team went to Silicon Valley to raise money only to discover that you can’t get funding on a flat graph.
Learning a hard lesson
“We conducted a market study and realised that RubyMonk would work better as a B2B product. Programmers don’t pay for software, companies do,” says Sidu.
It was a rude awakening as the team had invested close to $200,000 of their own money.
“We almost had an existential crisis and went back to the drawing board and split C42 into two parts - consulting and engineering,” says Sidu.
The product team decided to give themselves a strict timeline and were going to go back to consulting if it didn’t work out. With Rs 10 lakh in the bank, they decided to build a dating product. Soon, they realised that 90 percent of relationships in India are arranged marriages.
“RubyMonk taught us not to build a product with no market. So, we ended up building a matrimony product - a marriage bureau breaker Trusted Rishta. And even now, there is a decent probability that I may go back and work in that space. Every community has a bureau for matchmaking; we wanted to take them online,” Sidu says.
But the self-imposed one-year deadline was over and they ran out of steam. So, on April 1, 2014, they shut shop and went back to C42 Consulting.
“In hindsight, I faced several burnouts. After RubyMonk’s funding fell through, I came back from the US and did nothing for almost three months. I dropped off social media, stopped answering mails, and did nothing. The emotional price is real,” says Sidu.
The silver lining
In 2013, Ajey Gore, who Sidu had known from his early days, had started a consulting firm CodeIgnition in Delhi-NCR. While C42 focussed on backend engineering, CodeIgnition focussed on DevOps. The two had complementary skill sets so Sidu and Ajey started working together.
The two decided to put an Internet domain called CodeMonk representing both companies as one brand. This was the time when Indian startups were on the rise with Flipkart, Ola, and OYO in their heydays.
“We were seeing the early days of funding glut. Our competitors were funded startups, not for their products but the talent. The only way this would work was if the competitor was our client. We could then charge the rates and pay comparable salaries,’ says Sidu.
They also needed to give a steady stream of interesting work to their engineers or they would leave.
“It was a brutal eight months. As a creator, my entire sense of self-worth comes from building stuff and here we were, waiting for callbacks from clients. It was an existential red. After eight months, we were able to get through Sequoia,” Sidu says.
Next stop: Gojek
Business started growing and the team were helping different startups scale. In early 2015, Ajey and Sidu were looking to set up an office in Europe, Anandamoy Roychowdhary from Sequoia Capital suggested that they check Indonesia as well.
Excited by the market and opportunity, the duo went on to work with Tokopedia and Gojek.
“For us, Gojek was this small company in Jakarta then. We didn’t know if we wanted to focus on them. But, there was a scaling problem in the company and we were called in,” says Sidu.
CodeMonk solved the issue and were soon called back in around July 2015. Eventually, the team helped Gojek with several kinds of problems.
“It didn’t matter what the problem was; we would solve it. In April-June 2015, Go-Jek was doing 5,000 to 8,000 orders. But, by July, with the work CodeMonk did, the volume grew up to 40,000 and kept rising,” Sidu says.
Then, in February 2016, Nadiem Makarim, Co-founder of GoJek, acquired Codemonk and the Indonesian unicorn opened a development centre in Bengaluru, which is led by Sidu.
The ultimate lesson
“In the early days of starting up, you want a hustler - someone who doesn’t care about anything else but the problem. They should have a portfolio approach and focus on what they can make up,” the entrepreneur says.
But most importantly, Sidu believes in trusting your gut and instincts, and says that the only way to train your instinct is by failing.
“All the best hires we made were based on our gut. That instinct comes by failing and making bad hires. Don’t avoid mistakes, but extract the maximum learning from your mistakes,” he says.
To all young engineers, Sidu says,
“Focus on building stuff, keep track of it, and your resume should reflect that. Your marks, your college, your degree...nothing matters as much as what you have built.”
(Edited by Saheli Sengupta)