This woman entrepreneur left a cushy MNC job to start up with her colleagues in a one-room office
At the age of 24, Smitha Rao left a job at Mphasis to walk on the path of entrepreneurship. Hailing from a business family, she was not opposed to the idea of starting up, and along with her co-workers Krishnan KM, (and later Sanmangala) started Utthunga Technologies, a product engineering and industrial solutions company.
Smitha has an engineering degree from Manipal Institute of Technology and an MS from BITS Pilani. When Krishnan introduced her to entrepreneurship in 2007, little did she know what a ride it would be.
Smitha, Sanmangala and Krishnan were co-workers in the industrial automation division of Mphasis, where Smitha directly reported to Krishnan.
Krishnan was impressed by their work, and when the idea for Utthunga sparked, he decided that the two would be great business partners to drive the idea to fruition, and approached them.
“Our humble journey began when three passionate engineers got together in a small one-room office. We aimed to cater to the technology needs of the industrial world. The foundation of the company was industrial connectivity and protocols. That is how we started as a company 13 years ago, connecting industrial devices and systems,” Smitha says.
Smitha with the team
“To be ahead of the game, we became contributing members and implementation partners for several industrial consortiums. This helped us stay in step with upcoming technological and disruptive changes in the industry, and at the same time, make our presence felt in the industrial community,” she adds.
Fourteen years ago, the industry was already transitioning from proprietary technologies to standards-based software. Bengaluru was a natural choice for the founders as it was already a startup hub with a large pool of talent and a maturing ecosystem.
Utthunga’s core offering is product engineering and industrial solutions for OEMs and industries.
“We bring in expertise, in both the domain and technology. Building a SCADA application for O&G, for example, is not just a technical challenge, but also needs a good understanding of the various use cases, operational challenges, and plant personnel expectations,” Smitha says.
The company also enables customers to adopt digital transformation by building varied products and solutions. It collects, analyses, and derives value from the data from plant floor assets to enable decision making at the enterprise level. It also engineers native desktop, mobile and cloud-based applications with complex workflows and processes.
Their offerings include connectivity and data integration solutions, digital engineering, embedded engineering, operations/production applications engineering, project engineering and systems integration, project engineering and systems integration, security solutions, and verification and validation.
Stable products to disrupt the market
Utthunga has grown to over 700+ engineers working across the globe, serving 150+ clients in various domains and technologies. The majority of its customers are located in North America, Europe, Japan, and India.
“We have institutionalised agile practices to enable digital transformation for OEMs and industries. We operate with one core objective: to engineer stable products with faster time to market. We have the right mix of experience and expertise in domain and technology, something we maintain with continuous re-skilling and training of our invaluable resources,” Smitha says.
At Utthunga, Smitha participates in customer acquisition, branding, and liaison with industrial consortiums. She heads the Europe business and the OPC Business vertical. Krishnan is the CEO, and Sanmangala heads its Delivery of Services BU.
Sanmangala and Smitha were honoured with the "Woman Entrepreneur of the year - IT" award from STPI Government of India, Karnataka, in 2011.
Utthunga operates with standard business models of the service industry like Offshore/ODC, Onsite, T&M, and has engaged with specific key customers with ROI-based based models. For its project engineering services, the revenue models are more straightforward and depend on the scope of the projects, from basic systems integration to a deeper digitalisation of their processes/plants.
“The software services industry has tremendous competition. The known Indian service companies that we hear about also operate in the industrial space. They have the benefit of scale and global reputation. We are small compared to them, but when it comes to product engineering for the industrial space, we command tremendous respect,” she says.
“Our strategy is simple. We obsess over customers and delivery. We invest in nurturing our talent. With that attitude, we have served hundreds of customers from across the globe – only a few of which end with a single transaction. Most continue to have a long-term engagement, extending to areas outside the original areas of engagement,” she adds.
Riding the industrial tailwinds
Utthunga remains bootstrapped, and the founders have been conscious not to seek external funding.
The founders’ focus has been investment into perfecting delivery, hiring/training, and acquiring domain competencies. They believe they have come a long way from not even having a sales team or an excellent website in the first nine years.
Smitha explains: “There have been industrial tailwinds that have helped us, and I envision that they will continue to propel us. The industrial sector, which is traditionally very slow in adopting technologies due to the fear of disrupting existing processes, is now more receptive to the new technologies already pervasive in the IT world. Cloud is a great example of this. A shift has also been seen in the openness of industries to invest in standards instead of proprietary technologies because they saw the effects of vendor lock-in in the years past.”
The onset of COVID-19 was challenging for Utthunga, especially in the first quarter when sales suffered and remote working affected delivery and operations. But the organisation bounced back and sailed through the phase through resilience and commitment to customers.
Utthunga in Sanskrit means ‘pinnacle”, and while Smitha believes they still have a long way to go to achieve it, they have indeed been able to make a mark.
“All our actions are aligned to ensure we are in step with evolving industry dynamics and fast-changing technologies. Learning and development are a big area of our focus, and staying close to customer needs will be another key goal. From a three-person team to more than 700 now, keeping the core culture intact will be an area where we will invest a lot. We would also like to strengthen our local presence in the USA, Germany and Japan,” Smitha says.