Monday, March 12, 2012

Entrepreneur's Interview - Taxi4sure

MandE: Good afternoon. Today we have with us the founders of Taxi4sure. Welcome to the interview Raghu and Aprameya. Could you please introduce yourself as the starting point of this interview?

Raghu: Hi, my name is Raghu. I am a Computer Science Engineer from KREC Surathkal after which I worked at Texas instrument. I then did my MBA from IIM Ahmadabad, followed by a stint at Feedback Ventures. My hobbies include reading books, running Marathons. 

Aprameya: Hi my name is Aprameya. I have known Raghu from the past 13 years. We were being batch mates from engineering and I was a year junior to him at IIMA. I worked at Infosys before my MBA. Post MBA I worked for Jones Lang LaSlle where I used to head Business development for India so one of the vertical. 

MandE: Could you briefly explain what Taxi4 sure does? 

Raghu: Taxi4sure is an Online aggregator  of taxi, we intend provide a customers a one stop solution for booking any kind of taxis and for a operators  to actually aggregate their inventory and try to  get customer. 

For the customer, our value proposition instant booking of taxi, a choice of all taxi operators across cities, price advantage, reliability, safety and surity of the taxi when you book it one line. We identified this problem as a common one across various customers and our own experience. This is what taxi4 addresses. 

Loosely, we could compare our business model to that of make my trip of taxi or red bus of taxi.

MandE: In your introduction, you mentioned that Marathon have helps you - could you please explain?

Raghu: When you jump into entrepreneurship, your income dries out and you begin feeling the pinch of it – it’s not as easy as you thought it would be. It’s when things are not going the way you expected that perseverance come into play. It is here that perseverance and determination helps you see through difficulties phase – This is what is akin to running a marathon. 

You hit a wall after cross around 30-35 km and all your physical energy has drained out. It’s only the mind that get you going – you tell yourself – just a little more and push harder. Similarly when you hit a wall in your entrepreneurship journey - You know that this is yet another race, another week, another month and you will be there. 

Once you hit the finishing line when you are really happy about it. Once you cross that, you feel you can still do another marathon. 

MandE: Aprameya, How did you begin thinking of entrepreneurship?

Aprameya: I didn’t have a predetermined intention of getting into entrepreneurship, I always thought of myself as working for some company. 
When at JLL I worked closely with CXOs of the company and department Head – this gave me an exposure to the everyday functioning of the company.  I felt this wasn’t very difficult and thought of trying it out. This was the best time to try it out before, your liability in life increase.

The confidence that my experience at JLL gave me, and the timing are the two things that gave me the confidence. 

MandE: Raghu, how did you begin this journey?

Raghu: Aprameya and I used to discuss quite a few ideas across the table but there were always many “what ifs”. Then I thought let me give the idea 2 years - if  things doesn’t works out – we could get to work elsewhere; but if it works out then we didn’t have to worry. 

In hindsight, that was one of the good decisions we made. Since I have already done my post graduation it is kind of easy for me to compare. If you are looking to do a post graduation, you generally take a loan and spend 2 years working for it, but in entrepreneurship there is generally no loan that you take and the returns invariably would be higher than what you could expect after an MBA or an MS. If it hasn’t work out then too, you would have learnt much more about what works and what doesn’t than in MBA or an MS. From the learning point of view, having started off early in life helps – So it was an easy decision for me to make. 

If it works out, fine. If doesn’t work out I am not learn from it.  Either ways, beneficial – so I decided to try.

MandE: OK. Your business is an operations intensive business – what where the challenges the business that you faced and how did you go about fixing these challenges? 

Raghu: Ours is an extremely customer centric business – our objective is to ensure we give an extremely good experience to the customer when he books taxis online.

It is an operationally challenging business, and we attempt to ensure that the taxi customers’ book reaches the customer in time – in addition we focus on a very smooth experience during the journey. 

It is very different from booking a flight or a train or a bus – in these modes of transport, the customer rarely interacts with the driver. The role of the driver is extremely critical in ensuring a smooth experience. We are still attempting to reach this, we are positive of achieving this goal. Handling drivers and ensuring they provide a good experience is our biggest challenge.

Apart from this, it is important to note that the taxi rental industry is extremely seasonal – it has very high peaks and very dry seasons. The technology, supplies and people to handle these is another major challenge in itself.

We are very cautious in our growth rate, and our operators too resonate this vision. They understand that in our success lies their success. Initially it was difficult to get the operators to align with our vision but, as we have shown the effectiveness of this model, they are now more willing. They don’t regard us as competition but more as facilitators to their business. This was a major hurdle we overcame.

There are many more challenges to solve, but the most critical thing that we need to focus on next is the drivers.

MandE: Your have scaled pretty well over the last 9 months of operation – how did you manage the finances for your venture?

Aprameya: We began with investing our own money. Right since the beginning we have been extremely critical of the way we spend money – this has helped us look at alternatives we wouldn’t have found otherwise.

We made sure that our employers are not driven by money alone but believe in the long term vision of the company. We have realized by our experience that whether it was a technology or call centre operations, over a period of time – the people who are stuck with us are those who actually believed in the long term vision.  Getting such people has helped us cut down our expenses. We pretty much have done a good job in terms of keeping our expenses low and keeping maximum benefits out of it – this very important to do that as a start up.  

Even when you go and rise investment later on your VCs or angels respect the fact that we have not spent too much to reach the current position. 

As entrepreneurs you need to be frugal, for at least one or two years, you are not  going to think about like going out on weekends or a trip somewhere etc. Whatever you spend on without thinking much right now has to be cut down. Give yourself a time limit so that you are not really bogged down by it.

You need to be disciplined at the personal level, and this would translate to the company too. This has to be extremely important.

MandE: How did you develop the necessary networks and how did you leverage it to grow up?

Aprameya: The initial networks that is always something that you grown up with. Our first set of advisers and investors came and our college from NITK. The first person who put us in touch with all the big VCs in the country is from our college IIM Ahmadabad. 

These networks have helped us initially, but then when you make new connections – you should not look at it as transactional. People need to buy into your story, and feel a part of what you are trying to establish. Once you do this, the network naturally builds around you. 
These are the softer aspects of network building that the entrepreneurs have to take care. Without people putting in confidence in you, you would find it hard to deal with various different unknown territories in business. You need to be out there interacting with the people, letting them know what you are doing. Media shouldn’t be the first point of approach, it is important to know the right people who matter for your business – media shall come if what you are doing is really worthwhile, i.e. if people are using your product or service, which investors seem to buy into etc.

Raghu: When we began networking – we believed our idea is our IP – if we reveal it to someone, they would leave all their work and get to working on this idea. This I believe was one of the most common mistakes entrepreneurs do at the start up stage. This in hindsight we believed prevented us from using the doors that were open for us! Idea is only 10% of the business, execution forms the remaining 90%; so just because you have shared your idea, people will not get to doing it.

The second important lesson is to be at the right place at the right time, you will find the right place and time only if you visit a lot of places – and many of these wouldn’t be the right ones. You need to keep trying. 

Do not restrict your choice of meeting people based on their background; show them you are passionate about what you are doing. Even if the people you meet aren’t the right people to help you, they might know other who could help you. The passion you show, really rubs off on the people you meet. We have witnessed this in our interactions with both NITK and IIMA alumni.

The more open you are with your idea and sharing it, the more you gain from this sort of networking. Networking doesn’t just help you in finding the right finance sources, but also getting the right people to work with and for you.

MandE: Maintaining a good relationship with investors is very important, how have you done this?

Aprameya: Ours is an e-commerce portal that has a potential to scale up at an unpredictable pace. When you are speaking to people, don’t limit it to only those who can be a potential source of fund to you; discuss your idea, its feasibility, anyone  who has tried similar things earlier – this way you will get to know a lot of things other than just raising money. This way you create an existence in their mind space – it might not give you an immediate return, but you need to be determined.

If you find someone who could be very influential, don’t waste time – just go meet him; without the expectation of any financial gains, or connections. Unless you tell everyone whom you meet, nobody would come forward to help you. This is something that we have constantly being doing since the very beginning.

We never really looked at what stage of growth we are in – we never said we have these many transactions happening a day and so it is good to visit an Angel, or a higher number of transactions we go and meet a VC. We were never able to predict our growth. We never believe we have that extent of control of our business – in fact, being out of control in many ways is one sign of success in the initial period.

When you have been connecting with so many people, you realize that someone has shown interest in you. If we would have spoken with an angel today, the transaction growths over the period of a couple of weeks or a month would have got a VC interested in us… It is extremely had to predict such things in our business. 

You should never restrict yourself to the number of people you talk to, or the kind of people you talk to. Talk to everyone you get across – you never know what kind of value each one will give you.

MandE: What is the message for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Raghu: Message is simple – if you have always been thinking of starting off and haven’t done it this far, just take a two years break and start off. If it works out good for you, otherwise you would have learnt a lot. If you have an idea just go ahead! If you do not have an idea – don’t wait for a right one, work with multiple people that would help.

Starting something all alone, and taking yourself through entire journey would be extremely difficult - If you have someone whom you really trust and respect, that goes a long way. 

Just for statistics, 75% of the entrepreneurs who have started with their first idea were not successful, but they were successful in later their ideas. Don’t wait for idea, get a good team and get start.

Aprameya: Stop thinking about the pressures and liabilities you have in life – it doesn’t really help. In some form they are bound to exist.
If you have thought of starting something, just go ahead and do it – give yourself a timeframe and move head. It would be foolish if you do it for five years and still not done anything substantial. Give yourself a decent amount of time to explore an idea, and don’t keep shifting ideas.

Don’t keep shifting focus, and working on an idea and making it into a business is not as easy as one might think from the outside. It is important to give an idea the time it asks for! A simple benchmark could be - unless you are ready to spend one and half year on an idea, don’t start it. If you think it is worthwhile to spend that many numbers of years then you start and don’t shift focus. 

MandE: Thank you Raghu and Aprameya, for taking time out. Thanks


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