Armed with a Master's in Information Management and Computer Engineering from Syracuse University, Harshal Bhakta and Deep Shah made a decision that many wouldn't unless a compulsion—they came back to India immediately after graduating. The motivation behind this decision was to build their own software development company in India, for India. The duo started Information Works in Gujrat to develop applications for SMBs and the education sector; their first app was for CAT exam (Common Admission Test) aspirants. I asked them a few questions about their decision and how their past few months of starting a business in India have been, here's what they had to say:
Q1: What does your company do and do you call yourself a startup or a small business?
We have started InformationWorks based on a shared vision of coming up with technology solutions that solve a real problem to the best of our ability. Our vision is to provide unique solutions based on our perspective of the problem & user expectations. We want to build opinionated software, I mean, softwares that try to think on users behalf, software that just work out of the box, softwares that are dead simple to use and I can go on. To put simply we want to build software that our users will love to use. I know these are difficult promises to keep. But that's the whole point, we want to challenge ourselves and keep implementing things till we get it right.
We recently started InformationWorks and are currently exploring a few product ideas. Going by the definition of a start-up we definitely are operating like a start-up. However, the way people look at us in India is a bit different. For people who are not really familiar with the concept of a start-up we are a small-business trying to earn money by making software. For those who understand the start-up terminology we are a technology company exploring multiple ideas. We plan to come up with multiple products under the InformationWorks umbrella.
One thing that we are focusing on right now is the influence of technology on Indian education system. We think there is a lot that can be done in that area. Initially, we want to come up with a few products that will contribute to the education system.
We plan to focus on a single product at a time, which makes our operations very similar to a start-up. The team we have at InformationWorks is in for a long run and unlike a start-up we wish to keep the team formation intact even if one of our ideas fail. This makes us operate like a start-up but grow like a company.
Q2: Why did you decide to move back to India? The Silicon Valley is in the US and the NYC startup scene is drastically improving, did US not fascinate you anymore?
It was more about where we would be more comfortable in terms of resources. I have easily managed to secure a good angel investment in India, whereas it would have been tough for us in the US to convince people to believe in two random Indian kids who still are not sure what their next product will be. hahahaha. Jokes apart, I just felt that India needs us more than US needs us. What India has given us is the space that we need to try our ideas, fail and then try more. Whereas in the US we would always have been bothered by VISA issues or be scared if we are doing our taxes right blah blah blah..I don’t even know if we as two non resident aliens would be allowed to found a company in the US. It just didn’t feel right to be in the US in our early experimentation phase.
And if at any stage we feel that India is limiting us from the vision that we have for our company we will definitely consider going back to US again.
Q3: Mobile applications and websites, how do you see them changing businesses in India? Do the people have ready access to resources like PCs, smartphones, laptops, tablets and connectivity that business applications will impact daily activity?
The way people use technology in India has changed to a great extent. People are using smartphones more than ever. Web-applications are now penetrating into the business operations & daily lives in India. Resources are increasingly getting available to the people of India. It’s not the resources that is a problem in India, but lack of quality technology products is something that needs attention. More people are doing online transactions, be it buying train tickets, movie tickets or buying stuff. Moreover, people have started using internet in every aspect of their lives - By every aspect we mean its used for business, entertainment, learning, activism, social networking etc.
Awareness about technology products and their use in daily operations is increasing in India and we wish to contribute to that. We plan to come up with a few products that support the education system in India and we wish to help people become more aware about the benefits they can get by using such products. We will have more to talk about this when we launch a product.
Q4: You've said SMBs and the education sector are your starting points, how do you see yourself adding benefit to their business and profits?
Indian businesses and educational institutions have a specific way of functioning. We feel that creating products focused on supporting their operational practices, we can open up new opportunities for their growth. A lot of stuff done here is manually operated and there is immense potential to come up with technology solutions to reduce the error rate and increase an individual's productivity. We will have to closely work with businesses and gather a lot of user feedback to actually make an impact. It is interesting to work on a problem, come up with an elegant solution and make money out of it.
Q5: How much impact do you think does your being in India bring? The US outsources development, couldn't you remain in the US and service clients? Do decision makers in India require a different approach?
Being in India was a personal as well as a strategic decision. Personally, being in India has always been one of the future plans. Strategically speaking, we currently have enough resources in India to start with. We don’t want to restrict ourselves by creating solutions specific to India. However, we feel more connected when working on a problem in an environment we have grown up in. It makes it more fun too.
It would have been a better idea to be in US if we just wanted to service clients in US. However, we wish to contribute to the technology products market of India and operating as close to that as possible is an added advantage.
Q6: How do you see your 2 years in the US and the education here shaping your thought process, products and company?
Its a great question. Honestly, the two years I have spent in the US have meant everything to me. In a sense those two year made me learn, think, dream and execute. I had felt a new urge to learn, to compete and to excel from the first lecture I attended at the University. Working as a programmer along with assisting professors, doing lil bit of consulting here and there along with taking academic course was definitely the best part. Those two years changed my entire perspective on education, products, companies, start-up etc. Every single day I spent in the US was helping me grow as a person tremendously. It was a different me altogether. More than the courses I took, it was the conversation with professors, peers, friends and colleagues (at part-time jobs) helped me a lot. The open conversations that one can have with professors helps tremendously.
The M.S. Information Management course at Syracuse University has a bad reputation of being not too specific in any particular thing. But that has actually help me try my hands at everything. And what I have realized is that the courses that I have hated the most have always helped me the most. Be it policy or a design course. Because those courses made me uncomfortable and made me think differently. To say it bluntly, every decision I take are mostly influenced by those two years spent in the US. This doesn’t mean that I don’t value what I learned in our undergrad. But I just didn’t like the way how colleges work in India. I don’t want to elaborate too much on that as I get really opinionated and it is altogether a topic for another discussion.
I have been a programmer all my life. When I started my undergraduate course here in India I had a strong urge to learn as much as possible about technology and programming. I was somehow disappointed with the education system here in India. There is a lot that needs to be changed but I will talk about it someday when I feel I have achieved enough ;). After completing my undergraduate course I worked for Accenture for about 2 years. It was a great learning experience working for a company like Accenture in India. However, my quest to understand how the world works and progresses with technology was still not satisfied.
I decided to go for a Master's degree to Syracuse University and I will never regret that descision. Coming to United States and studying at Syracuse University gave me a much needed exposure to how world leaders in technology are contributing to the progress of the world. I was a mediocre student during my school days and failed at several stages of life that did not interest me enough - I failed in Biology, Physics & Maths to name a few :P. At SU,having had an opportunity to prove myself by taking up projects that interested me the most gave me the much needed confidence in life. The flexibility provided by the professors at SU helped me be more creative in all the projects. I got an opportunity to spend more time on the projects by losing a few grade points. I invested this time in implementing the functionalities in a much better way than expected. I realized that such flexibility and freedom is somehow missing in the Indian education system.
Freedom to be more creative is the one thing I value the most about my 2 years of education at SU. Courses offered at SU were technically challenging. I enjoyed working on most of the projects and knew this is what I want to do all my life - Coming up with creative technology solutions. The exposure I got in US by working for multiple small companies at Syracuse and one of the best technology companies at Seattle is invaluable. I got to know a lot of people who had a different but interesting perspective about technology. The experience I had in US over the period of 2 years in all the domains influence the decisions I make everyday. US & India are different in a lot of aspects and I am using experiences I had at both the places to go ahead in life.
Q7: Giving up Amazon and going back to India for starting a business is a huge deal, how easy was the decision and why? I read the blog post but what was the moment like when you decided that you'll give up Amazon's hefty pay & go back home?
I thought a lot before I gave up the offer from Amazon. I knew what I was giving up, but I also knew what I was giving it up for. I knew the kind of struggle I was choosing for myself as against the hefty pay package offered to me by Amazon. There comes a moment in life when you realize what you want to do in life & InformationWorks is what I ever wanted to do. I realized that I will enjoy the struggle more than working for Amazon. For anyone taking such a decision, it is extremely important to know if you will enjoy the struggle and not regret what you are giving up. I knew I will never regret giving up an offer from Amazon. InformationWorks means too much to me to regret about anything else that I need to give up.
When I actually gave up the offer I felt relieved and fresh. Getting to build a company based on your ideas and principles is a priceless feeling. I am living my dream and so should everyone else.
Amazon was a milestone in my life, never the destination. InformationWorks is the destination. I am finally home.
Q8: Satyamev Jayate is making an impact on society, how do you see entrepreneurs like you changing outlook in India?
We think Satyamev Jayate is making an impact on the society because the show has been executed very well. There have been shows that have tried to do similar things but have failed. The success of Satyamev Jayate is because of the way it has been designed and executed.
Similarly, In India entrepreneurs exploring new as well as old ideas and taking risks to change the way Indian businesses operate is one of the major advantages. We wish to make an impact on the society in the longer run by coming up with technology products that are efficient. Nothing impacts a society more than a group of individuals motivated to create elegant solutions. That is what InformationWorks is going to be. We will see how that goes as we move ahead towards our goal. Till then we will continue to have fun with our struggle.
I've had very interesting conversations on a wide variety of topics with Deep and Harshal, this Q&A was as interesting and at some level inspiring.
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