Super Innovative Startups 2015

Super Innovative Startups That Could Change Your Life

There are loads of lists on the internet about the hottest/coolest/sexiest startups in the world today. As someone who’s been watching this space for a few years now, I’ve been specifically fascinated by startups that are high on innovation and look to fix or address a genuine, everyday problem. That, is the inspiration behind my list below; startups that made me go wow either thanks to the problem they’re solving or how they’re using technology to shake up an existing industry.

  1. Duflduflfeature1As someone who spends a lot of time traveling and therefore, packing and repacking and packing again, Dufl is a dream. You’ve got to check out their story as reported here on TechCrunch. Forget the pain of picking clothes, packing suitcases and parading through airports looking like Uncle Scrooge. It’s quite simple – sign up for the service, Dufl sends you a suitcase that you pack with your usual travel clothes. Once you are ready, your case is picked up by FedEx and transported to the nearest Dufl hub. Your clothes are then catalogued and made available for viewing and selection through the Dufl app. Whenever traveling next, just ‘pick’ out the clothes you want on the app and Dufl will ensure the bag reaches your hotel or address, before you touchdown! Once done with your visit, just schedule a pick up and Dufl will pick up the bag and take it back to their hub and have it washed, pressed and ready for use – boom! Within months of launch, it’s great to see Dufl now have a presence across the US & Japan!

    For their full story, visit www.dufl.com

     

  2. LechallechalGoogle maps navigation achieved through haptic feedback in footwear – the story of dreams! 2 things that have me really excited about this product – fantastic design, I’d love to be seen wearing those shoes; and Made in India – so proud!To see how this startup is making quick progress, visit www.lechal.com
  3. LummalummaA genuine problem that, if solved, can help thousands of people globally survive the pain of wrong medication and on  an everyday level, just make lives easier!www.getlumma.com has a detailed description of where the team has progress.

     

  4. Carvanacarvana

    Not as young or revolutionary as the 3 listed before it, Carvana is definitely poised to shake up how people (in the US) buy and sell used cars. Carvana lets people buy high quality used cars, sight unseen, through a very interactive, highly transparent and immersive experience on their website. On visiting the gallery of cars on Carvana, one of the first things that strikes you is the quality of the photography. Every car is available for viewing in 360 degrees, inside and outside. Any knicks or scratches are left for potential buyers to beware of and are even highlighted as hot-spots to avoid any surprises later. Established in 2013 out of their HQ in Phoenix, AZ, Carvana has operations and distribution facilities in Atlanta, Dallas, Nashville, Charlotte, N.C., and Birmingham, Alabama and hopes to close 2015 with $120 million in revenue, up from $45 million the previous year. The latest buzz around the venture capital markets is that Carvana is looking to raise $300 million.One of the coolest features of the Carvana process that I feel isn’t spoken about enough is the way cars are photographed and catalogued. I’ll let this part of their corporate video do the talking.

    Visit carvana.com to buy your next car!

The Moment of Truth: Haptik

About 28-odd months ago was founded the idea of Haptik, when Aakrit and I met on the sidelines of Startup Weekend, Gurgaon in November 2011. I can safely admit that though the idea has turned completely on its head since, the passion the team has shared towards building a genuine remedy for the pathetic state of customer service today, has been unflinching. In Swapan, Aakrit found the perfect co-founder whose dedication towards clean, efficient code is very admirable.

Today, as we officially launch Haptik as an India-first service, we are excited, nervous, pleased, confident and proud of where we’ve come. We realise that the this is just the beginning and that while the idea has the potential to be, as Nikhil from Operations puts it, “the next big thing”, it’s up to us to ensure this potential converts to numbers that’ll make Aakrit Vaish and the rest of us happy.

Personally, the journey has been fulfilling. I’ve managed to stay fairly in control of all of the design you see in the iOS app (despite Aakrit’s best efforts at vandalism) and a lot of what’s in the Android app, besides everything on the website, Facebook page and the Twitter page. Swapan, I know I’ve been a pain in terms of alignment, colours, spacing, etc; but thanks for putting up with it all. I trust the fruit of the labour is the app in users’ hands from today! In the days to come, I am eager to learn from how our users react to the app and keep improvising to ensure a better customer experience.

I’ll leave you guys with this picture of my chair; which I got around 8 months back when Haptik’s development efforts started heating up.

The chair that designed Haptik!

The chair that designed Haptik!

Its survived many hours of design and onerous Skype calls and is in this condition as we standby to launch. Here’s to many more worn chairs and even more satisfied users of Haptik.

Hello. We are Haptik.

Haptik – Customer Service done the 2013 way. 

Read official release on our blog – http://blog.haptik.co/post/63727777754/hello-we-are-haptik

Just short of 23 months since the idea’s germination, the thought to let companies & customers ‘chat’ through a closed channel of communication vide a smartphone app

Haptik Logo - Hand device

Haptik Logo – Hand device

and for consumers to be able to access customer service in a smart, intelligent manner has finally taken birth.

Ably led by CEO Aakrit Vaish and supported and built by a guy who I’ve begun to admire for his unassuming awesomeness, Swapan Rajdev (CTO), I think this idea and now company is in the hands of wonderful people. I’ve shared a bit of the last 12 months of my life and a lot of the last 2 months working with these fantastic gentlemen in turning this idea into reality. Miten Sampat as a friend and adviser and Raveesh Bhalla as Lead Engineer & Interaction Designer have also been key to this idea shaping up with clear purpose while maintaining high levels of quality. I am part of this team as Design & Marketing Partner.

We announced the company to the world today, via a post on our official blog.

During the last fortnight, we’ve released an alpha version to select friends and family who’ve been kind enough to go through TestFlight’s painful sign up process and give us feedback on the app. Your efforts are much appreciated!

The next few months are exciting – with all the hard work and weeks of self analysis, criticism and second guessing out of the way, Haptik will go into Beta this month. We’ve opened up invites on our homepage and the response is encouraging. It also has Swapan going through sleepless nights in working to ensure the back-end works perfect when we release the app to all of you. A launch video is also in the pipeline sometime this month.

I’d once again encourage all of you to read our blog to better understand what Haptik is and then sign up for a chance at early access once we are in beta. If you like what you see, don’t forget to like our Facebook page and stay upto date with everything as it happens on our Twitter feed.

Petcialize – Everybody needs company

We hear of incredible ideas in today’s startup-crazy world – ideas that instantly spawn the investor minds into wanting to pull out the nearest napkin and evaluate the cash model and customer lifespan or coerce the working class superheroes into putting in their papers the very next day in the quest to start off on their own. Recently, one of my ex co-founders and very current best friends, Rohit came up to me with ‘news’ of this new idea he had chanced upon – Petworking. Hail Mary – my first, instant reaction. But if something as ludicrous as this had one percent chance of seeing the light of day, Rohit had the balls (and time!) to do it.

Today, with the support of Sandy’s Chocolate Laboratory and ItsPets.in, Petcialize (love the name!) saw it’s first event happen with attendance of over 20 pets and their ‘human’ owners.

For Manika and me, it was some much needed time with Ekda outside of home. We will be the first to admit that we represent a growing (perhaps majority) class of pet-owners who shower proxy love on their pets. We are there to take care of most of their needs in the form of providers but rarely there in the form of givers. Pets however, being the amazing beings they are, still manage to keep their loyalties clear and are able to distinguish between caretakers and masters.

Ekda attended her first petworking event organized by Petcialize - an event by Rohit Koliyot

Ekda attended her first petworking event organized by Petcialize – an event by Rohit Koliyot

The drive to Sandys Chocolate Laboratory in Ganapathy Colony (fabulous, lush green out-cum-in door outlet in Chennai’s Alwarpet locality) had Ekda all excited, head out of the window almost through the 20-minute drive. It was also a time for me to reflect and feel quite guilty about the proxy love that I had been meting out to her. While I was looking forward to the idea of the next couple of hours surrounded by pets & their owners, I was a little hesitant as to how it might actually pan out – given that I am a first time pet owner and definitely at my first ‘petworking’ event.

Walking into the venue, I was absolutely overcome by the pets in attendance. It did help that we knew some of the other pet owners present and that helped us and Ekda ease into the place. Welcoming all pets were treat bags graciously sponsored by ItsPets.in, partners for the event. Though meant to be an all-pets event, it was no surprise that 100% of the animals around were dogs. What was surprising though was that most of them were labradors and beagles! An Argentinian Mastiff and a gorgeous chocolate-coloured Setter added glam value to the event.

Casper at Petcialize

Casper with the Palam family at Petcialize petworking event

120 minutes passed by even before we knew it – we met new people, new pets and it was a fantastic new experience for us humans overall. Ekda, who is otherwise petrified of machines, humans as well as other dogs, came into a bit of her own about 60 minutes into the evening. Though she didn’t really petcialize much (that trophy undoubtedly belonged to Casper!), she did her own bit of exploring the venue, away from Manika and me – something we’d never have ever imagined.

The Beagle Company!

The Beagle Company!

I dearly wish this event happens every weekend. Due to constraints of space and resources to manage an event of this sorts, Petcialize obviously need to restrict entry to about 20 pets per event. But given the demand generated by the first event, I am sure they’ll easily fill up weekly dos such as this with a pet attending at least two events a month. I personally look forward to a beach house event where these fellows jump into a swimming pool and show off their survival instincts.

Rohit – I can only thank you for this. As you have acknowledged, the business future of Petcialize might seem daunting as of now, but trust me, you have the blessings of everyone who’s lives’ you helped reconnect with their pets today.

If you want to attend the events or be notified of goings on at Petcialize, please register with them here for free – http://goo.gl/gzZoqI

Love the idea? Share your support by liking their Facebook page.

Do you have it in you – Startup offer

Update, 16 Aug: Thanks to all the good folks who’ve been helping spread the word. I’ve updated this post to indicate that we are no longer only looking for someone out of Chennai. We’d in fact prefer if the person was based out of Bangalore / Mumbai since they’d then be closer to the brands. Please keep spreading the word.

 

It’s been great getting back to work post all the madness of the wedding. Yes, it does deserve a separate post of its own and I am working on it. 12 days, 14 events across 2 cities.

So back at work – things are as usual at Influx. Business is robust, cash flows are getting better and generally there’s optimism that better times are back.

Some of you close to me also know that I am working on Haptik – an app that’s expected to change the world and when it does release this September, you are going to be asking the now cliched question – “where was this all this while!?”. I was to take on a pure advisory role at Haptik initially – however, we have recently been talking of a fuller role at Haptik. So between Influx and Haptik (and the wife!), my time is pretty much sorted.

However, there is this other project that I have been working and thinking about for the last 6 months that I’d like to see gather some steam over the next 6 to 8 months. A website that lets you order samples of everyday FMCG products from the comfort of your home, all in exchange for your honest feedback. Titled, eksample.com, the project would be cultivated and mentored by a gentleman (we’ll call him Kay for now) with oodles of brand marketing experience and me. The key challenges to this project are getting customers on to the portal (traffic) and getting the brands to get on to our site (listing). While the former is something I do every day at work and comes very naturally to me, Kay through his days as an ad-man has vast experience and a wide network of people in FMCG brands. Between us, the major strategic challenges will be overcome.

However, like any solid business idea, it’s success will depend on it’s execution. And its towards this end that we are looking for someone (young) who is willing to come on board full time and take this idea forward. The Chennai/Bangalore/Mumbai based position will include having to liaison with brands, travel to meet with brand managers across India, engage in digital marketing to reach out to customers, make sense out of the gigabytes of data that the website will produce, etc. We are typically looking for someone who wants to startup by themselves but is either looking for the platform or just hasn’t had the guts yet to quit his/her first job and do it. We’ll be fair – we’ll pay a survival fee of about Rs. 35,000 per month and take care of expenses. We are going to be bootstrapping this till we reach the first 1000 unique, repeat users before we look out for seed/angel funding. We are also keen to tap both the UAE & India markets in our bootstrapping phase.

Whether you have more questions, feedback or know someone who fits the bill or are interested yourself, feel free to write to me on harish at thesharck d0t c0m and I’d love to engage.

Exploring Entrepreneurial Experience & Excellence

About three months back, I was introduced to Vidya Venkatraman, Postgraduate student at the London School of Economics who was working on a rather interesting research project titled – “Entrepreneurial Leadership: Exploring how young entrepreneurs become successful and effective leaders without the benefit of experience”. The introduction was made by the venerable, Ms. Bhairavi Prakash. In conversation with Vidya, she explained how while successful businessmen had written books and been written about, chronicling their efforts at getting to where they had, entrepreneurs had stories to tell and lessons learnt that had not really been documented or shared – thus explaining the choice of her topic.

 

The questions appealed greatly to me and sent me on a wonderful trip down memory lane. I was happy to have been a part of her research efforts. Hope it worked out well for her.

The entire length of the interview:

What type of work is organisation involved in?
Influx Interactive is a digital media agency. While we started out in 2005 as a website design agency, we today have a full-fledged creative team as well as a technology team that helps brands by building websites, online marketing campaigns, manages their social media presence as well as builds out applications for web, mobile & more recently, Microsoft’s newly launched Windows 8.

How long have you been involved in this?
Involved is a loose term. I started in this direction in a much disorganized manner when I was 16 (2000) in the form of an outfit that built websites for my mother’s friends. I used to sport the name ComPort Technologies back then! Influx in its current avatar has been around since 2004 though ownership structures underwent a change in 2005 & then again in 2011.

What sparked off the idea to start your own company?
Fairly early, I figured that the 44-year age gap between my father and me would manifest itself as a huge financial burden upon the gentleman when I turned 18 and ready for college. As a result, I wanted to be able to pay for college myself and I worked towards this general direction since I was 13. I started off with a library from home (Oxford Youth Library!) with books obviously my parents had bought and then one thing led to the other. However, it was after a brief stint with a technology firm in Delhi (1 month) where I earned Rs. 2000 as stipend that I realized that I would NEVER want to work for someone else. This was confirmed since in the next thirteen days after this internship, I went on to build out websites for my mother’s friends, three to be exact and made about 6 times the amount I made in the entire month. That was a math equation simple enough even for ME to solve!

Could you briefly talk about your educational & professional background?
I went to school in Chennai at Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan Senior Secondary School, Nungambakkam. I was in the first five of the class till around sixth grade after which I preferred to delve into extra-curricular activities just as much as academics. I soon moved down to within the top fifteen but ensured I made a mark with everyone in the school through my involvement in a variety of activities in school. Thereafter, I decided to pursue the law at Chennai’s (then) brand new School of Excellence in Law. Here again, I was doing well in academics till I decided I wanted to be more rounded. As a result, I preferred to participate more actively in Moot Court Competitions and represented the country and college at competitions across India and in Australia. However, since this was now running in parallel to a fast growing business, I did not get an opportunity to complete my college education. It’s not really a regret but something I might choose to try and fulfil at some later point in my life. I have never really worked in any company besides the 1 month internship stint mentioned earlier, while in Delhi.

Have you had any kind of experience in entrepreneurship or in the field/industry that your organisation belongs to? This experience could be in the form of formal education, training or work experience.
None.

Team composition and development

Do you have a larger team of co-founders or other team members?
I did have a set of co-founders right up front in 2004 but they weren’t in a position to commit full-time to the business. As a result, when my first angel came around in 2005, they chose to pursue their academic paths while I forged a very healthy alliance with my new found partner. The whole switch over was seamless and I continue to be great friends with my past co-founders. I later went on to acquire my partner outright in 2011 in what was again seen as a decision in the company’s best interests. So as of now, I have no partners or co-founders but a wonderful team of 34 people, some of whom I can proudly claim to be amongst the best in the creative industry.

How many employees does your company currently employ?
As on date, 34. We should touch 55 by January with the only hindrance being the easy availability of good people!

What are some of the most important factors you consider while hiring employees?
Willingness to experiment, accountability, levels of exposure to technology & social media, the desire for a better life.

Often, in entrepreneurial set-ups, there is no formal training given to employees owing to various factors such as time and cost. What do you think should be done in start-ups to enable employees to learn and develop? How does this work within your company?
Just as with other entrepreneurial set ups and as rightly mentioned, we too suffer from the same issue. At this point, it’s not really about the cost but more so the time since any time spent in training is usually seen as time lost in delivering projects. This is more so the case when you have managers down the line entrusted with delivering projects. However, we have plans for Super Saturdays which are the alternate Saturdays that we don’t work where we want to introduce fun based learning activities. We also have provided our staff with a training budget annually which they are free to utilize for any training programs they come across related to their work with us. More recently, I have been in touch with a corporate training firm to formalize a training structure.

Prospective employees are normally attracted to the legacy/brand value or the money that a job has to offer in addition to the ‘job itself’. The brand value of an established organisation also creates a sense of trust in the organisation and credibility in the competence of their leader(s). As a relatively new enterprise, has it been a challenge for you to create a sense of trust and credibility amongst your employees? If so, how have you dealt with it?
In the initial days, it was simply about sharing my passion. I would speak at great length (as you’ve probably figured out by the time you’ve gotten down to reading this bit!) about my vision and expectations of my company and that usually helped convince people. As time went on and we realized the need to attract a ‘better breed’, I realized that I was the company’s biggest asset and started building a brand that was me. This is VERY VERY important for any entrepreneur to succeed. It’s not so much about gloating but about being able to convince people that they are a part of something much larger, ably led by someone they can count on in their time of need. At the same time, it’s important to realize when the time comes to move out of that mode and switch to a more organization motivated hiring role than legacy based hiring. This happened for us in 2012 and we helped make that happen by putting together an office that definitely stretched and pinched our budgets but is an instant win the moment a candidate walks in. This also translated itself into a more comfortable, convenient work culture that potential employees see when they walk in (pets at work, shorts, video gaming, etc) as well as keeps current employees satiated.

How do you motivate your employees?
Besides whatever mentioned just above, the one thing I ensure to keep them motivated is staying in close touch with them on a daily basis. This is easier when you are a small team but once you grow bigger, it’s natural to get castled in your ivory tower- beware! I like spending time with my staff, acknowledging and appreciating their contributions, celebrating our successes, discussing our failures, letting them participate in policy decisions, reaching out to them in their times of personal need, regular and healthy compensation revisions, off sites (we recently spent 4 days in Goa!) and great air conditioning!

Communication

How does communication work within your organisation?
As much as we promote E-mail based work flow, things still happen ad-hoc through face-to-face discussions. These aren’t even formal meetings unfortunately but are more discussions where quick decisions are made.

What are the formal and informal channels of communication in place within your organisation? Is there one channel of communication that you find more powerful or effective over another?
Yes, an innocuous little tool called IP Messenger that is like an Instant Messenger but within an office. It lets us chat and transfer files while logging everything that’s shared which makes it a great tool for easy communication. However, it also breeds a highly disorienting work process flow since it’s hard to maintain version of documents and files this way. It’s a known devil for now and we are slowly trying to reduce the reliance on it for transport of files and encourage its use only as a communicator.

Knowledge

A lot of times, entrepreneurial ventures are started by people who have gained several years of experience in the field. This experience gives them domain knowledge of the industry which helps them deal with familiar issues. It also gives them wisdom and a sense of intuition in dealing with unfamiliar situations by drawing on past experience.

  1. Has this been a challenge for you as a young individual in setting up your own start up?
    It was, but the advent of my partner in 2005 really helped. He acknowledged that mentoring was what I needed most and that he gave me with great patience. Else I definitely see how I would’ve struggled to learn the ropes and more importantly, make the right decisions.
  2. What are some of the specific challenges that your relative inexperience has created?
    Administration and Financial management. Even for those who come through business school, what they don’t teach you is how the system is built to work against you. Handling our country’s statutory requirements and bodies requires smart thinking and the only way to learn is through experience – either first hand or handed down. In the former, you’ll burn before you rise (if you manage to) and in the latter, you can just count yourself plain lucky. While online guides speak of when an entrepreneur should look to hire help to take care of aspects of finance and administration, for an entrepreneur trying to do business in India, do it right from day one. Else, you’ll spend more time than you can or want in hassling over statutory riddles.
  3. How have you dealt with it?
    My partner was a great source of learning. Along with him also came two great administrative staff who have been invaluable to the company. In eight years of existence, we have had only two people managing our administration and finance, the second still working with us having completed five years. It’s crucial to prevent too much churn in this department since it’s a nightmare to fill and till the right person comes along, you’ll be back to handling all the nonsense yourself.
  4. Is there stress associated with handling the conceptual, technical and interpersonal aspects of your job? How do you deal with it?
    Tremendous. You have to grit your teeth and trust in the future of your idea and back yourself. In fact, it helps to know right up front when you choose the entrepreneurial route that your life is going to be 24×7 right from day one till when your own end actually comes – it’s a burden you have to live with at first and an addiction that you’ll never want to give up as time goes along. 

Problem solving and Decision Making

Entrepreneurs such as yourself work in a dynamic, fast-paced environment. In such a situation where the time is short and the demands are many, how are decisions made within the organisation?
I love this part and unfortunately, my answers here will be specific to me and my journey. I am a completely intuition and gut based decision maker. Fortunately it has stood by me till date. I back myself to make the right calls and then do whatever it takes to ensure I see it through, while not being fool hardy to support a decision where it apparently seems to be wrong. I believe decisions are made up of two parts – conviction and doubt. The proportion of one to the other will determine how effective you are in decision making as well as how much time you spend researching, talking to family, friends, peers and others for nothing but validation or affirmation – to convert doubt to conviction. I must admit that I have been pretty lucky with my gut till date but would encourage most other entrepreneurs also to give themselves more credit than they usually do. 

What role do your colleagues (both co-founders if any and employees) play in decision making?
Today since we have a work flow in place, I have shifted a lot of the decision making at an operational level downwards towards my staff. I prefer to take the final call only on policy matters, strategies for clients, marketing and creative work.

Are decisions centrally made by the management or is it jointly evolved by the management along with the employees?
Jointly, as far as possible. It’s important to be inclusive though that may not necessarily always mean participative.

When faced with a dilemma or a problematic situation, what has been your most commonly chosen course of action in dealing with it? (For example, do you withdraw in order to think it through and collect more information independently [or] do you analyse the problem with your team to brainstorm and jointly evolve solutions. Or perhaps you analyse the situation and break it down into components and divide it amongst yourself and others based on their strengths.)
When it is a client or delivery related issue, it’s a team discussion and we try to jointly evolve solutions. When it’s a company related decision, I just trust my intuition.

Leadership development

What do you see as your main job as a leader?
Making people happy and accountable at the same time.

What experience(s) do you think have best helped you in your development as an entrepreneur?
Working with a myriad of people from across the country, networking, learning from mistakes and losses and working with my partner.

In the context of the issues and challenges discussed so far, what do you see as the three biggest strengths of your organisation and the three biggest challenges?
Strengths – client portfolio & creative abilities, work culture, quick decision making.
Challenges – efficient delivery processes, training, a better breed of technologists

Professionals often seek feedback to understand their strengths and weaknesses. Whom do you normally approach for feedback?
My staff, clients and a couple of close friends.

What advice would you have for young individuals who have aspirations to set up a start-up of their own?
Read Vidya’s compilation! I think this is a great idea and the questions are well formulated such that if one answers honestly, a lot of learning is available from these answers for future entrepreneurs. Few other points:

  • Take the plunge the moment you know it. I am not a big fan of balancing a job with entrepreneurial interests – it’s like having two wives and doing justice to none. Plan to sow but choose to sow it only when you are fully committed to growing it.
  • Try and bootstrap your idea as much as you can. It’s very easy these days to get carried away by reports in the media on funding and investments doing the rounds. Remember that what doesn’t get reported is the struggle each of them have had to go through to survive the first few years to ensure they come out successful and well-funded. The stronger your balance sheet when you go to an investor, the bigger the bargaining chip. Also, I personally believe bootstrapping helps you own the idea more passionately and ensures you are willing to stand by it, no matter what.
  •  There is no such thing as perfect. It’s great to chase perfection but it’s also easy to get lost in that pursuit. Sense when something is getting there, and move ahead so that you are never left wondering, what next.
  •  Scaling up or expanding is a HUGE decision. Take your time over it but don’t kill yourself over it. The first 20 employees and the first Rs. 1 Crore are the toughest targets. Once there, it will ease out for sure. Plan it well.
  •  Learn from your mistakes – I cannot stress this enough. Document, commemorate, and decorate your mistakes to ensure they are always in your face or at least at the back of your mind. 
  • Reward yourself – it’s important to celebrate success as much as it is to document and learn from failures. Let there be holistic celebration where you celebrate the success with your team as well as personal, material rewards that mark an achievement.
  • There will always be an easy way out – critics and literature will tell you that there’s no easy way out, but there is. What ensures failure or success in that route is your ability to gauge the risks and then decide whether to explore the route or not. Quick thinking on your feet and the ability to weather any storms that come by your way should govern your decision to take the easy route or not. Most often, the easiest route to anything starts with a great idea and measured execution. Good luck.