How cloud telephony can make life easier for Indian firms

In this article Vijay Sharma, co-founder of Exotel, tells us how his cloud telephony app resolves the pain point of managing customers on inbound voice and SMS without the hassles of running a full fledged call center.
Written by Srinivas Kulkarni, Contributor
One of the most important things these days while managing small businesses and startups is to totally get rid of the hassles that come along with telephony. Being able to manage customers on inbound voice and SMS without really having the need to set up a full fledged call center is totally a boon. That's what Exotel is all about.
I've been interacting with Vijay Sharma, co-founder of Exotel, for a while via Quora and Twitter and was interested in knowing more about this application.
Having worked before in call centers and having had an opportunity to set up as well as manage inbound and outbound sales call centers, my interest in this app was deeply personal.  Especially handling businesses on a large scale with lesser resources is what makes this application very useful and helping businesses to manage their telephony.

Exotel is is a phone management technology that offers a company one single phone number on which it can make and receive calls and SMSes--and it's all on the cloud.

A lot of businesses and offices today use the traditional electronic private automatic branch exchange (EPABX) systems, yes, the ones with numerous blinking red buttons who your receptionist handles. Otherwise, you go to a local provider who gives you various phones with one line and multiple number of extensions.  A lot of times,  when your sales team, and people who are always on the move, end up using their mobile phones anyways. So that's something interesting in Exotel.

Exotel takes care of that infrastructure, maintenance and the expenses in setting up this kind of telephony or the way they work in call centres. It is a virtual business phone system, using cloud telephony.

The data is plugged straight into CRMs and can be used for reporting. Customer calls are routed to directly employees' phones; thus making business available to its customers all the time.    
Vijay Sharma, co-founder of Exotel.

So Vijay Sharma answered some of the questions I had via e-mail and this is what he had to say.  

How did Exotel come about?

Shivakumar  Ganeshan aka Shivku, a co-founder of Exotel, was running another company previously called Roopit. It was a site that offered micro classifieds in Bangalore. Essentially sellers post short sale notices (140 characters) along with a mobile phone number and buyers get the seller's phone number via SMS by entering their mobile phone number. There is no registration.

He was looking for a solution to help scale his voice and SMS requirements in a smart way, and after facing two road blocks:
1. Telecom hassle of getting a phone number easily for his small business.
2. Unable to find a technology product that solved his problems around automating smartness in calls and SMS,
He decided to build his own product for Roopit since he was a techie all his life from Yahoo and Flipkart days. Then a few of his friends with their own companies said they too would like a solution and would pay him for it. That's how Exotel came about. 

What were the key problems that you faced when you thought of developing this app?

Unlike most other SaaS products, which are simply software, Exotel has a huge telephony angle to it which makes it slightly more difficult to build. We had the software capability always, but making sure our customers don't face the telco frustration that we had in initially getting things set up was a major problem. We slogged a lot and still do in making sure the telecom infrastructure issues were not passed over to customers and have since built a lot of redundancy in our system.  

Whom do you think your app benefits more? What's your core target group?

It has been created to solve the SMB businesses problems. Affording an EPABX or PBX system and managing the infrastructure with no digital data is like paying crazy hard earned money for a 1980's solution. It's frustrating that Internet and telephony have not been brought closer yet for small business owners in India. Avaya, Cisco and etc solve problems for the larger companies, but their solutions aren't affordable for an MSME either.
Typical target audience is any company dealing with great B2C traffic of calls of at least 50 a day, having 2-30 people to manage those calls and SMS. You could look at a restaurant, spa, an NGO, an education institute, an ecommerce company or a freelance Web development team of two. 

Some insights on how many customers you have and how they are using your product?

We currently have over 300 paying customers and they use the product in multiple ways and many of their stories have been shared as part of case studies on our site.
Most companies use us for routing calls internally within teams, departments and record these calls with data. Many use IVR to greet customers and shorten time spent answering repeat questions. Some use a combination of missed call and SMS applications whereas others do their complete call centre outbound calls using the product. Apart from other applications like voicemail, call conferencing and etc, the more excitement comes with the integration possibilities with our API, as companies are able to integrate their LMS/CRM with telephony now thanks to Exotel.

Who are some of your major clients. Any insight on how they are using your product differently?

All of our clients are major but to cite a few use cases: 
Amnesty ran a campaign recently on "justice for Sri Lanka" and they utilized almost every part of the product to get 1.3 million people mobilized for the campaign using our technology which would have been impossible using only online means. They had a number to leave missed calls on, they did IVR calls which were in the regional language where people left voicemails and got SMS confirming their participation. Voice and SMS in India are still the fastest way to connect with people.
On the other end, you can find a small Web development firm Dotcord using us in a simple call, missed call, voicemail enabled applications to not miss leads.
Many companies like Olacabs, RedBus use our API to trigger automatic COD confirmation calls, or calls to customers in a simple efficient manner, connecting their agents and customers over our network quickly.

Tell us about your team.

We started in July 2011 and  by November the founding team of 4 was in place. Now we are 15 people in total. We are a very tech-driven team who like to automate as much as possible both for the customer and ourselves. We have a good mix of slightly experienced folks like Shivku, Ishwar, Sid, Karthik, Sanjeeth who have spent 8 years each in a Yahoo, Microsoft, EBay or Cisco and a super enthusiastic young team of Kailash, Ruchir, Ajay, Shubham, Nijanthan, Govind who bring in energy. And then Vivek, Sonam, Jay bring stability and balance. 
More on the team here.

I noticed your team does a lot of follow up and offers proactive customer service/support. Is that part of your philosophy?  

It's core to us at Exotel. We do make mistakes many times, but we learn and try our best to be best at support to help the customer start off and continue using the product happily for a long time. It is a SaaS product and hence the customer will be king, and should be. 

How is your revenue model placed? Where do you stand in terms of revenues?

We do at an average of 4500 rupees per customer and you have our customer numbers, the match can be done.

What features do you consider the most useful and more relevant to your customers?

The fact you can look at the phone number options that we have in our inventory, be it landline, toll free or mobile numbers in any telecom circle and choose which number you want to buy and have it for your business in 2 minutes is something very exciting. Companies love the ability to be able to setup everything in 15 minutes and not have to wait 15-30 days to get a phone number.

How have you been using the funds you raised a year ago? What is the way forward for Exotel?

We have used the money we raised primarily for team and product development and finding a good product market fit. We will now look to start pushing on marketing and sales, so far it has been very much a pull marketing strategy, and with the confidence of existing happy customers, we will go all out in getting our next 10x growth target in terms of number of customers within the next 12-18 months. We feel that our applications and API will be very exciting for web developers, designers, IT companies and free lancers to work on, and we invite them to build some cool applications with our product and technology that we all can profit out of together.
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