Techie CEO innovates and inspires

Deepak Ravindran of InnozAged 25, a college drop-out, but a Fellow of INK, SLP and YCE and CEO of a leading mobile technology company; rated among the 18 hottest technology innovators from India for 2011 by the MIT, he won their telecommunication award for his product SMSGyan, the largest offline search in the world; he was also a TED Talent Search Participant for 2011. Meet Deepak Ravindran of Innoz.

Innoz, selected as the Red Herring Global 100 and Asia 100 winner for 2010 as well as Nasscom Top 8 Emerging Companies in India for 2010, and founded by Deepak and friends when he was just 21, is the first virtually incubated company in India. This is in fact the third company he has initiated. He founded Swades Solutions, an offshore Web design / SEO firm in 2005, and also launched an ecommerce / deal website Just4sale.in in the summer vacation during high school and sold it to a friend by the time he got admission in college. Ranked among the top C Level Tweeters around the world alongside Richard Branson, Evan Williams, Guy Kawasaki, Tony Hsieh and others he has a strong social media presence on Linkedin, Facebook & Quora. His youth and non-Ivy League status does not stand in his way to success.

Feel like this young man is a synonym for innovation and inspiration? Then read on.

Techgoss (TG): When and where did all this IT ‘gyan’ start?
Deepak Ravindran (DR): “Some years ago – never mind how long precisely…nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” This (modified) opening quote from Melville’s Moby Dick perfectly captures my state of mind when I ventured out as an entrepreneur to avoid the job-seeking rat race and pursue something new. I’ve always wanted to become an entrepreneur. My fascination with computers and internet began on a Pentium III & 56 kbps modem. The internet opened up a whole new world to me. I was hooked. I’ve always enjoyed wide-open pursuits where I can create and be unconstrained. While in high school, as a 16 year old boy, I sourced and sold tech magazines & CDs to fund my pocket money, while other kids were busy saving Super Mario’s girlfriend.

I founded Swades Solutions, an offshore Web design/SEO firm in 2005. However, I did not take it forward to pursue a bigger dream. From the confidence that I gained from my first venture, I moved to bigger and bigger ideas, realized that chasing bigger dreams gives you more space to think. I never felt bad about failing and never stopped experimenting either. I also launched an ecommerce / deal website Just4sale.in in the summer vacation during high school and sold it to a friend of mine by the time I got admission for college. At the age of 21, after joining Kannur University in Kerala to study Computer science, I dropped out of college and co-founded Innoz along with my 3 other friends – Hisam, Ashwin and Abhinav.

TG: How did Innoz happen? Innoz is the first virtually incubated company in India, the initial capital was Rs. 50 lakhs and now is at Rs. 100 crore says sources! You were still a student when this was started. Could you talk about the birth and growth of Innoz briefly?
DR: We started a service SmsGYAN as our final year project. It instantly became a raving success inside our college campus which soon spread to other parts of the state and country. Internet penetration is still low in India and the number of mobile phones has overtaken laptops and PCs. This fact had motivated us to build a cost effective platform on mobile for instant information. Everybody—irrespective of age, location or vocation—has questions to ask. These could be simple or complex. And not everyone with a doubt has access to the Internet to get the answers.

Imagine being able to get all the information you ever needed by just sending an SMS! Well, SmsGYAN does just that. SmsGYAN delivers information from the Internet on to your handset without you needing to go online. “GYAN means knowledge in Hindi & the service is known as SMSGYAN – Spreading Knowledge through innovation. SMSGYAN which currently has around 10 million users is nominated for Limca Book of Records 2012 for the largest offline search in the world. We have been able to answer more than 500 million questions from all parts of the country. Before dropping out of college, along with the other co-founders of Innoz, I have represented India in the finals of the DFJ-CISCO Global Business Plan Competition 2009 alongside the Georgia and Stanford teams.

In fact, my reason to drop out of college in 2009, while in the final semester was to join the iAccelerator’09 program in which we received the first external source of funding and were invited to join the incubator at Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship at IIM Ahmedabad. I believe that persistence is the key to success – Initially, I faced difficulty in cracking business deals with the telecom companies in India and had multiple doors slammed at my face. My being so young and carrying a CEO card seemed to amuse the MNC telcos. One fine day at the Airtel campus in Gurgaon, I was lucky to meet and convince the head of new products inside a coffee shop. Through him, we cracked our first deal with Airtel, one of India’s biggest telecom operator. Very soon, all the other major operators in India – Vodafone, Aircel, Idea, Loop Mobile, Tata Docomo etc. were keen to avail our service. Currently, Innoz is working with the leading technology partners across the globe such as Wikipedia, Zomato, Rotten Tomatoes, Wolfram Alpha, Snapdeal, Vuclip, Wordnik, Justeat.in, Worldweatheronline, Bing etc. At the moment, around 50 Innozites work dedicatedly towards helping Innoz realize its vision – to become the best place for people to find information on mobile.

TG: Tell us about what SMSGyan is. Where does your product stand now?
DR: Using SMSGYAN (55444), our goal is to be the best place to find information anytime, anywhere. Currently, there are around 800 million mobile users only in India who do not have access to the internet. Several others have a weak GPRS connection. Our aim is to empower these users with accurate search results through our mobile answer engine, SmsGyan.

The questions that we answer now stream in fast and furious from all parts of the country, at a rate of 1 lakh queries per hour. In an SMS-crazy country, millions of Indians who have not yet clambered aboard the internet revolution are using the texting feature on their mobile phones to search for instant answers. Our product is a paradigm shift from standard mobile service offerings as it adopts a user centric learning approach using a low cost, low bandwidth medium as its delivery mechanism. SMSGyan beta version was launched in January 2009 and commercialized in March 2011.

Once the Gyan engine gets a query from a mobile user, the algorithm spiders the World Wide Web for the related information, zeroes in on the most relevant inputs, and then shortens it to be sent to a mobile phone via the text message route. Various categories are currently available such as encyclopedia, dictionary, acronym, live cricket scores, movie reviews, book reviews, weather alerts, stock market, gadgets prices and calorie meter. Other recent additions to premium services include localized searches, job search and even a health service over the phone. For these services, the platform makes use of its content partners to deliver the required information. For data users, SMSGyan acts as a content delivery platform that supports pictures, videos, and music search. For such requests, it sends WAP links to a user’s mobile device in answer to his or her query while SMS is its primary interface. It has even added services for Facebook, Twitter, and email via SMS over the SMSGyan platform

The queries pour through in Hinglish (a mix of Hindi & English), Kanglish (Kannada & English), Tanglish (Tamil & English) and a host of regional variations. Those seeking replies are mainly 18- to 25-year-olds — middle-class Indians from small towns and smaller cities who do not have internet access. And their questions present a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the young, “middle” India. Teamed up with leading mobile service providers, the company currently fields 35 million queries each month for Rs. 1 an answer — making it arguably the largest offline search engine in the world. Every time a user texts her query to ‘55444’, Innoz’s software searches through own files and vast internet databases to pull out appropriate answers. Responses are sent back within seconds. An “unlimited questions” subscription costs all of Rs. 30 and mobile service providers share with it their revenues.

From Satara in the west and Imphal in the east to Rajahmundry in the south, love and romance, education and career, Bollywood and cricket are what fascinate India’s small-town youth the most. Others want to know how to get rid of dandruff, to become rich, to forget someone, or to gain height. We are not stopping in India. We launched the service inside Du network in Dubai, Middle East and also plan to enter into the African markets where the internet penetration is low.

Deepak at TEDx.

TG: Who were your mentors on the road to achievement? Who would you point to as a role model?
DR: Mentorship is extremely important even more than funding for young start ups. Lack of experience can only be matched with advice and inspiration from the veterans. Advice is FREE, never take too much of it but take a handful. Angels moreover treat you as family, take you home and get you dinner. You need to find some people like that – preferably within the business you are in. I have had multiple mentors such as Kris Gopalakrishnan, Co-Founder & Executive Co-Chairman, Infosys; Ramesh C. Dutt, Expert Consultant & Advisor, Technopark; Sanjay Vijay Kumar, Founder & CEO, Mobme and Lakshmi Pratury, co-host of TEDIndia 2009, host and curator of The INK Conference and founder of Ixoraa Media. My role model is Steve Jobs who has been inspirational to most youngsters in my generation.

TG: You are rated among the 18 hottest technology innovators from India for 2011 by MIT institute. You won the MIT award for telecommunication last year for your product SMSGyan. Could you elaborate on this win?
DR: Some of the brightest innovators in the world under the age of 35 have been recognized through this award. Some of the notable awardees of TR35 include Larry Page and Sergey Brin (founders of Google), Jerry Yang (co-founder of Yahoo!), Mark Zuckerberg (creator of Facebook), Jonathan Ive (designer of the iMac, and later the iPod and iPad), Evan Williams (co-founder of Blogger), Jack Dorsey (creator of Twitter), Marc Andreessen (co-founder of Netscape), Shawn Fanning (creator of Napster). Being featured in this list is an honour in itself and I felt proud to be recognized as the innovator for SMSGyan that aims to empower a huge market of mobile users with information.

TG: The INK Fellowship and the TED: these must have been heady honours. Tell us about the other honours in the list as well.
DR: It is an honour to be a fellow for both INK and TED. Their programmes aim to bring young innovators from around the world into the TED community in order to amplify the impact of their projects and activities. I have met a lot of interesting persons through these forums who have inspired me during my journey. There have been a lot of opportunities of collaboration with fellow TED fellows that has helped in the growth of Innoz. Some of them have joined the team as partners/consultants for Innoz. I am also a fellow of a.) the Startup Leadership Program (SLP) which is a world-class training initiative of TiE Boston for outstanding founders, leaders and innovators who are or want to be startup CEOs and wish to be connected to a global network and b.) YCE, an organisation that creates opportunities worldwide and brings together digital entrepreneurs who use new technologies to deliver creative activities. My work has appeared in Forbes, MIT, The Sydney morning Herald, Economic Times, Times of India, Bloomberg UTV, Business Standard and more than a hundred other magazines, newspapers and blogs. Nowadays, I am frequently invited to student events at college campuses to motivate other young student turned entrepreneurs.

TG: You spoke at the Eighth India Innovation Summit 2012 organized by CII Karnataka, what was the focus of your presentation?
DR: The topic of my presentation was “Start up, young man” and the focus was to inspire the audience to live their dreams and to share the possibility of starting up at an early age. I believe that my story has the potential to inspire the youngsters of today to create jobs rather than simply look for jobs. Never thought that I would become the person I am right now, but I never stopped doing what I love. And I continue to do so. I just turned 25 this year and was happy to find myself fortunate to be leading a team of more than 25 full-time employees having a wide range of experience and skill sets. When we had dropped out of college to pursue our dreams, it was very difficult for us to convince our families, peers and faculty about our goal of being an entrepreneur, because every guy next door would prefer to opt for a well-paid job and soon get married. Now here is a generation mind-set shift where we became job creators instead of job seekers and went ahead to recruit 70% of the staff from the same college. In fact, no one at our company ever misses college life because we consider ourselves to be a group of friends doing business.

TG: Your vision of growth for the next five years?
DR: My vision for growth for the next five years is to make every phone smart rather than to focus on smart phones. Developing countries have 70% mobile cellular penetration but only 21% internet penetration. Thus, the market that we are looking at is far bigger than for smartphones.

TG: The major setbacks when building a start-up? Your advice for entrepreneurs?
DR: The major setbacks when building a start-up are hiring people, getting clients and convincing investors. For hiring people, we started with hiring persons from our college itself and diversified later. For cracking business deals with the telecom companies in India, I had multiple doors slammed at my face. My being so young and carrying a CEO card seemed to amuse the MNC telcos. One fine day at the Airtel campus in Gurgaon, I was lucky to meet and convince the head of new products inside a coffee shop. Through him, we cracked our first deal with Airtel, one of India’s biggest telecom operators. Very soon, all the other major operators in India – Vodafone, Aircel, Idea, Loop Mobile, Tata Docomo etc. were keen to avail our service. Similarly, the investors who I approached were not at all keen to interact with me since I am not from an Ivy League institute and am young in terms of age. Lack of revenue also does not appeal to the psyche of the Indian investors who aren’t as big on taking risks as compared to those in the Silicon Valley. Even though I was rejected by hundreds of investors, I continued to be persistent since I knew that we needed more capital to grow bigger and finally, we cracked a deal with Mahesh Murthy from Seedfund.

TG: A bit about your non-techie dreams: Things you like and want to do in the coming days? What next?
DR: 100 Rockstars is my initiative to support student ideas and technology projects with incubation and funding. The objective is to look for the most promising 100 ideas which are technically viable and self- sustainable. In 2010, when I wanted to visit the USA to receive the Red Herring award, Kris Gopalakrishnan, Co-chairman of Infosys Technologies had funded my trip since I did not have any money to travel. This led to a chain reaction and inspired me to launch an initiative called 100 Rockstars to support student ideas and technology projects with incubation and funding. Through this initiative, we are looking for the most promising 100 ideas which are technically viable and self- sustainable. The first of these rockstars is a boy called Jery Althaf. Jery’s paper on “Low Cost Electrification Using Solar Energy” has been accepted for presentation at the 2012 IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference which is being held on October 21-24, 2012 at the Renaissance Hotel in Seattle, Washington USA. Since Jery’s presentation is a key part of the conference and we have faith in his talent, we have taken care of all expenses incurred for his trip.

Deepak Ravindran, Co-Founder & CEO, Innoz, SMSGyan.

Another thing that I will focus upon in the future is my Venture Capital initiative called “The Pirate Fund”. We will invest in companies at an early stage, typically within the first 6 months of the company being set up. We will be 100% focussed on people rather than the companies and look at both offline and online businesses. The investments will be focussed specifically in India and other emerging nations.

[ Deepak is also the founding member of Startup Village, India’s largest incubation attempt going global in scale with the recent announcement by Kerala Chief Minister to give 100,000 sq ft to build the world’s largest telecom incubator within 18 months by Jan 12, 2014. The plan to incubate 1000 IT Product startups over the next 10 years is a focused approach by going an inch wide mile deep, in Kerala, India’s state with the highest (100%) literacy rate and 100% teledensity.]

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