While people were still struggling to earn wings for their entrepreneurial dreams, a man thought of making entrepreneurship a social, collaborative effort. He was Poonacha Machaiah, founder and CEO of ABOVE Solutions, and a well-known and successful serial entrepreneur. He started off his company ABOVE (A Bunch of Versatile Entrepreneurs) Solutions in 2008, to provide “engineering talent” to overseas customers. The idea wasn’t new, but his passion to prove (to himself and the industry) that Indians are capable of delivering industry-leading solutions was.
Poonacha and his team have successfully delivered several projects in the field of education, mobility, media and entertainment. However, what really sets him and his work apart is, his firm belief that entrepreneurship efforts shouldn’t just focus on business but on creating value for the betterment of the society. No wonder, today he is counted among the new breed of emerging social entrepreneurs who are using approaches from the commercial world and employing technology to tackle social and environmental problems.
Poonacha shares bits and moments of his entrepreneurial journey—reveals challenges faced, talks about his vision and philosophy, and offers advice how entrepreneurs can take their ventures to new heights—in a candid conversation with Richa Sharma, deputy editor-Business Insider India. Here are some excerpts.
Yours’ is a successful startup and a technology company based out of Bangalore. How and when did you come up with the idea of setting up this organization?
I returned to India in 2008 with the fundamental belief of setting up company that would design and develop world class products and solutions. Instead of a services company that would provide “engineering talent” to overseas customers. I wanted to build a company that would showcase world-class platforms & solutions that would be architected, developed and deployed out of Bangalore, India. I wanted to prove it to myself and the industry that we [Indians] were capable of building solutions, and setting standards by which others are measured.
What were the top 5 challenges that were on your mind when you started? And how did you overcome those?
Some of the challenges that come to mind (not in any particular order) are as follows:
· Talent acquisition: I spent a lot of time in hiring the right talent. I wanted to hire those who believed in my vision, and were willing to make sacrifices to realise this vision.
· Culture: I spent a lot of time building the culture that we had to go “all in” and take chances; it’s okay to fail. This was quite a challenge, since culturally we are not too supportive of failure.
· Cost structure: The cost structure in Bangalore was quite high from office rentals to personnel cost. We had not strong incubator/co-working space for startups to get started on boot-strapped budgets. Most of the good, talented people were working for MNCs (and from my perspective) on “inflated” salaries, and were not flexible enough to work for a startup for a salary/equity compensation model.
· Funding: At the time when I started, i.e., in 2008, the funding eco-system in Bangalore was not that great. The VCs were primarily investing in “proven” business models and banks were also not supportive when it came to lending money to a startup; they needed a three-year track record. I decided to bootstrap the company and ensure that I never got complacent, since every dollar I invested came from savings, and also from the house I sold in the US before moving back to India.
· Work Style/Productivity: I found that the overall productivity was not optimal and therefore, had to spend a lot of time to ensure that I build teams that were streamlined and delivering results.
Why did your organisation focus on building communities to enable transformative educational solutions and ubiquitous access to the masses via mobility?
I believe that only through personal transformation we can achieve social transformation. And I am a firm believer that education is what will help us become better citizens. Therefore, we decided to focus on educational products/services to bring innovative solutions platform/apps to the segment. We launched TangoFX, a platform that provided multi-party interactive learning.
We also launched ABOVE Learning Platform, to enable online video-based learning and looking at serving the MOOC (massive open online course) segment. We have deployed plethora of educational interactive content for the mobile segment, and are also working with a leading Fortune 100 company on their educational platform.
Q4. You have key anchor customers and marquee relationships with which Global Tier 1 company?
We have global Tier 1 customers in the network/storage segment. Our products have been anchored by global industry leaders. For e.g., ABOVE Learning platform was anchored by Deepak Chopra, who is an internationally renowned author and physician. We are also currently collaborating with DTS on their HeadphoneX technology to immersive 3D audio app for some of the leading brands.
Q5. What are the key development areas that you are focusing on and why?
ABOVE is focused on video collaboration technologies since we believe that it’s the key to enable learning/education. Our primary focus is on cloud, virtualization and mobility as only these technologies can help us deliver content to the masses, on cost-optimized mobile devices. We have also starting working on some focused data analytics solutions to address some of the challenges in the IOT/IOE segment with wearables.
What are the biggest pitfalls that online businesses and entrepreneurs can fall into? How can they avoid those?
I believe that the toughest challenge, with online initiatives, is coming up with a viable business model. Online initiatives are launched based on the belief that “there will be a network effect” and if one crosses a threshold of users, then revenue will automatically flow. This has led to the collapse of several online initiatives, since the business model has not been thought through. If a platform does not make economic sense, then it does not make social sense. Entrepreneurs should not get into the trap of just growing their user base and focus their energies on compelling “value” creation.
Which are the most interesting projects that you have run till date?
If I have to look at just the last five years, then some of the initiatives that I am proud of coming up with are:
· Turning ABOVE Solutions into a profitable R&D services company,
· Launching platforms such as TangoFx the interactive social TV platform was recognized and funded by MDA-Singapore; Qyuki, the creative social media platform that I launched along with Shekhar Kapur & AR Rahman, that was focused on democratising media and providing the youth of India to express themselves
· The WeightLess project, an online social platform that has been launched as a non-profit organisation to address two of our challenging health issues, i.e., obesity/lifestyle disorders and hunger/malnutrition.
What advice you would offer to our readers, who want to make it big in the entrepreneurship world?
I believe as an entrepreneur it is important to ask yourself the question “Why are you doing what you are doing?” And if you 100% believe in it, then you have to be fearless and go “all out” and “all in” to realise the vision. Surround yourself with people and hire those who buy into your belief and also customers who believe in your vision. The other essential ingredient is to instil that you onboard people in your team who have Passion, Hunger & Drive. Rest everything will fall into place.