Biz agility trumps tenure in India's SaaS revolution

Rigid Indian businesses lag their smaller counterparts to adopt software-as-a service practices that allow employees to access software applications via their Web browser.
Written by Mahesh Sharma, Correspondent

Indian technology vendors have warmed to delivering SaaS applications and are seeing agile healthcare and education businesses join their clientele, unburdened by costly legacy systems faced by large corporates.
Remotely-hosted SaaS applications can potentially bypass an organization's key IT buyers and empower employees who can access the technology with their corporate credit card. 
For N.D Shashank, SaaS was personal. Doctors in America were scheduled to operate on the knee of Shashank's father, but there was no easy way to submit local reports from local doctors in India. They photographed the reports, uploaded the documents to a PC, and e-mailed them across to the United States.

N.D Shashank
N.D Shashank, Practo Technologies

Shashank, a computer science student at a local engineering college, realized the problem was a lack of software. Doctors in India managed their entire business on paper. With co-founder Abhinav Lal, he saw SaaS as a way to solve a huge social problem: finding reliable doctors, and being able to see them on time. Together, they founded Practo Technologies

''When I saw the state of lack of software, it threw me back,'' Shashank said. ''We worked with them to fix the problem, and we did it because of the pain we felt as patients.'' Doctors told them their biggest woe was the number of no-shows.
In their final year of university in 2008, the pair developed the software to schedule appointments and notify patients via e-mail and SMS. They launched the full version a year later, and Shashank said the tool reduced the number of no-shows by 30 percent. They have since developed Practo Hello, designed to provide a direct VoIP (voice over IP) connection to a doctor, and also a Web site to locate the nearest medical practitioner.
To date, the company has signed up 8,000 clinics across India and 30,000 doctors use the software, booking thousands of appointments every month. American VC firm, Sequoia Capital, invested US$4 million in the business.
Practo Technologies' software is even used by practitioners of the millenia-old Indian natural health discipline, Ayurveda, and helped the ancient Indian science deliver its wares to a new digitally connected society.
The company's entire business has come from small clinics and individual doctors, rather than large medical institutions which are sceptical of the new technology.
''Small to medium-sized operations are far more agile to change and take risks compared to the bigger enterprises,'' Shashank said.
As in the case of VoIP phones that allow people to speak directly with a doctor, SaaS has made the medical experience more intimate. ''When you see the doctor getting more organized and the appointments are on time, the patient really appreciates these small things,'' he added. ''Doctors cannot afford an ERP or a complicated system, and SaaS is far easier and cheaper. With it, they can compete with the giants and keep the patient satisfied.''

Wooing the education sector

One Indian developer has successfully sold SaaS applications to large corporates, though, primarily to those in the technology industry. Mettl tests and measures employees' skills and knowledge.

Co-founder Ketan Kapoor said the software is used by seven of the country's top 10 technology companies, including Wipro, HCL Technologies, and Cognizant. His company has almost breached the million-dollar revenue milestone, and it is aiming to quadruple this figure in the next year.

Ketan Kapoor
Ketan Kapoor, Mettl

Mettl's coding simulator asks developers, programmers, and business analysts to code software that performs a specific task. The software then ranks the efforts based on memory consumed, logic, style, and efficiency.

It has proven to address a niche requirement, but the real-time test and measurement capability have an even bigger opportunity for the two-and-a-half year-old company: education.

Kapoor said the software will emulate the method of a grade-school maths teacher who assigns marks based on the techniques used to solve a problem, not just the final answer.
This application expansion is still in its early days, but Mettl was encouraged when it worked with tuition services provider, EduComp, which had used a re-branded version of the application to manage the National Mathemical Olympiads, comprising tens of thousands of problem-solving competitors.
Mettl will target personal consumers, rather than bureaucratic businesses. It could help address the issue where most Indian students learn by Rote, a memorization technique, rather than practical experience.

Kapoor said: ''If you go back a hundred years, you might learn by sitting at a desk with your grandfather, who showed you how to answer multiple choice questions. 'This provides that same intimate learning experience.''

Indian firms need SaaS hand-holding

The Indian SaaS market is still in its infancy, according to Sahil Parikh, who developed project management DeskAway, which customers reside primarily in western geographies such as the United States and United Kingdom, as well as Australia and South Africa.
India is ready, but not able.
Parikh explained: ''India right now is ready to consume these services, but they still need some hand-holding for when they decide to take the plunge."
Subcontinental customers require a very hands-on approach such as phonecalls and demos, which is a huge burden for a small SaaS startup, compared to the typical swipe credit card-and-go attitude that had allowed SaaS vendors such as Salesforce.com to flourish in the West.
''Americans come to your Web site, check it out, try it for 30 days--all without a single e-mail to us," Parikh said. ''It's [about] high touch vs low touch. That's what we experienced in the last five years.''
The younger and smaller businesses in India share the SaaS mindset of their global counterparts, he noted. ''If you target the large organizations, you would have to climb steps to gain approval [and they'll say: 'I'll show it to the boss and get back to you.'
''In smaller organizations run by younger people who are well acquainted with social media Web apps, then it should not be much of a problem," he concluded. 

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