I graduated from B-school in 2001, and returned to Trivandrum to join my family business Tandem, and to continue my work at Tinfo, a software development outfit I founded during my sophomore year as an undergrad.
Around the same time, I got a call from Anupam, my long-time best buddy from school and a geek with a rebellious streak. We used to front-end as vocalists in the school rock-band, Excalibur (a fact my wife still refuses to believe). Our conversation went something like this (we used to talk rarely and were speaking to each other after a year or so; one of those relationships that runs successfully with few words spoken):
A: Hey, its Anupam.
J: Dude, what's up? Long time.
A: I am in Bangalore now. I got an offer to join PCS.
J: Cool. When are you joining?
A: Not joining.
A: The employment agreement they sent had far too many pages.
J: Uh...ok. Did you read it? Is there anything that offends you?
A: No, I did not read it. Its too thick and I put it away. I am not joining.
J: Any other plans?
J: Ok, why don't you come down to Trivandrum and help me with my software stuff?
Anupam reached in a few days and started working with Tinfo helping us with a cyber cafe management product. During those days, we used to take up any meaningful work that came our way. Anyone who has run a services outfit will understand how this works. At one point in time we had grown to about 40 employees. We needed to keep revenues rolling to meet payroll. This wasn't easy, to put it mildly.
I used to split my time running my family business (in education, and other businesses; something I have seen and grown up with) and Tinfo. I had no social life ( and sadly was in my early 20s) and clocked 14 hour days on an average. I was an obsessive workaholic and used to drive our team up the wall. (I am sorry folks; I have gotten better, marriage and fatherhood have mellowed me).
Our dream was to create a truly world-class products company from Kerala. The world's top tourist destination, highest literacy rate in the country (in hindsight, this does not have much relevance), and a place so beautiful that one wonders how could anyone possibly leave this State to pursue 'greener' pastures abroad (pun intended). Kerala still remains India's top exporter of human resources – skilled and unskilled – and is a bit of an anomaly, although perceived as one of the most progressive states in India with HDIs similar to Scandinavian countries. You can find a Malayali (the term for the Kerala native) just about anywhere.
Well, I am digressing.So, we decided on this vision of creating a really great company from Kerala sitting out of Trivandrum, a city which isn't exactly the hub of entrepreneurship and start-ups.
In 2002, we bagged a project from a European company to develop mobile games, courtesy an employee who joined us after a stint in Europe. I need to step back now and elaborate a little. Game development is a highly specialized field. At that time, there were a couple of companies (Indiagames, Dhruva) in game development from India. Within gaming, mobile was at its most nascent stage with a handful of developers across the world. Colour phones were a novelty and in a market like India, phones were mainly Black and White (back then, we used to categorize it as B & W and Colour). So, here we are – no background in game development; no training to turn to; a medium totally new to everyone; not much of online resources to pick up from; no devices (that's what we call phones in industry lingo) available locally and the best part – a brand new platform for mobile gaming called Mophun from Europe (not the now-so-familiar J2ME or used-to-be-popular Symbian).
We took up the project. I managed to get a device from the UK through my brother-in-law and got working. Having someone like Anupam who likes challenges is a huge asset. Learning from scratch, we delivered the project successfully.
Without losing any time, we started figuring out this space. Along the way, we developed an in-house game development methodology, a process called QuirkPort that reduces time taking for porting and started rallying the team around this. We had some awesome people working with us and they were able to get going without much difficulty.
We rebranded ourselves as Tinfo Mobile and agreed that our mission will be to make solutions using the mobile phone as a medium to increase the quality of life. Grand as that sounds, we stuck to our vision.
In 2003, Reliance entered the market with a bang. Thinking of it now, the situation reminisces of the time Reliance went public; this was a mad-market rush to do something in telecom with the big-daddies and nobody wanted to miss it. Obviously, we did not want to miss it either. We applied for the Reliance Developer Programme (BTW, they were the first to start a dedicated Developer programme in India) and I shot off an email to the Head of the programme asking for an appointment.
At Mumbai, I made a strong pitch about mobile games and how Reliance should not miss the opportunity. I also made a strong point about how we are well-entrenched to do this for them considering our headstart and being one among the few development houses in the world.
After my presentation, the gentleman whipped out a sample Reliance device and asked me to take a good look at it. For those who are not from that generation, this is how it looked.
Back in Trivandrum, we hatched a plan to ship our maiden game production – Ramson's Quest – without any compromise on features on the same Reliance phones. Ramson's Quest was a full-fledged platform game. That's no easy task (please have a look at the picture above once again to understand why).
We did this in around a week's time and presented it to Reliance. Following this, we ported the game to all their colour handsets with sound and vibration effects – the first team to do so and a big thing in those times. Cracking Reliance's repertoire of low-end handsets and making these games work without shaving off any features was a big deal. It spoke volumes about Tinfo Mobile's technical capabilities. Ramson's Quest and Tinfo Mobile were profiled in detail in the inaugural edition of Reliance's Developer newsletter.
From that point onwards, we started making a lot of inroads working with other telcos, content aggregators and publishers globally creating an impressive array of Tinfo Mobile game titles and applications that was deployed across networks.
I am going to make the story shorter now. From 2003 to 2007, Tinfo Mobile had a series of big wins:
- 2003: Developed the earliest CSR application, 'All Minder', to help visually-impaired use mobile phones. The Times of Article had this great article on the product. We won the Reliance - NASSCOM award that year and Reliance in turn launched it as a part of their CSR initiative under the *444 service making it, arguably, the world's first CSR for the blind on the mobile platform.
- 2005: Truck Tycoon, the strategy game developed in collaboration with Lunagames, Netherlands received a 8/10 rating from Midlet Review. This was huge.
- 2005: Developed the industry's first Abby Gold winning mobile advergame for Mahindra Scorpio.
- 2006: Developed the earliest m-learning application, TeachMe, for learning languages on the mobile phone. Won the Reliance award again that year. Read more about TeachMe here. The same year, we started working with MTV to develop games based on their shows.
- 2006: Truck Tycoon wins the Best Game award at E3, USA, the Oscars of the gaming world. I don't think any other Indian company has developed an E3 yet.
- 2007: We started working full-time on products.
- 2008: We shut shop.
I attribute our failure to the following reasons:
- Focus: I was torn between running a full-fledged family business with more than 150 employees, shutting down a network of money-guzzling Internet Cafes that we had started in the early 2000s and managing a start-up in a greenfield area. Though I worked crazy hours juggling both, there was no point trying to develop business sitting out of Trivandrum. I should have moved out of the city to operator hubs like Delhi or Mumbai to drum up business and create more alliances while the tech team continued to be based in Trivandrum. I could not do this because of my other commitments.
Lesson number One: A start-up is a full-time job. Takes a lot to be Jack Dorsey.
Lesson number Two: Location is important when it comes to business development. Face time with customers is important.
- Hiring: It was very hard to hire the right talent considering we really wanted to take in only the best. Additionally, we had to train the new hires on a completely new platform and we only took in those who made the cut inspite of being really desperate for additional resources. Tinfo Mobile wouldn't have created these awesome products without the sort of technical prowess Anupam and team had. However, we had challenges retaining the talent because of 'greener pastures', our own cash-flow issues and many wanting to get out of Trivandrum. We also had a severe challenge getting people who had the mindset for 'game' development and that too, on devices with constraints.
- Fund-raising: We did not go beyond a seed fund from my beloved Professor S.Ramachander from b-school. This was around the time we stopped services and focused on products. We did not pursue further fund-raising inspite of having some funds speak to us because of our impressive market reputation. This included a top VC firm from the valley. One reason why we did so is because I personally felt its best to remain a small, focused products company. In hindsight, this was also because I knew I couldn't juggle my full-time responsibilities between the family business, fund-raising for running a start-up and managing everything in between.
- Services versus Products: During its tenure, Tinfo Mobile made some really first-of-its-kind products that met with a lot of success. We got tired of services and pulled the plug on it without raising adequate finance to fund the gestation period of our products and mainly on a hunch. This was the final nail in the coffin that did us in. Of course, we did this primarily because we did not have the luxury of a large team to do both services and products. And we chose the latter over the other because that was our vision
I would summarize as follows: If I had spent my full-time with Tinfo Mobile without any other commitments; if I had moved out of Trivandrum at the start of the game itself; if I had focused a little more on people; if I had raised money at the right time and done all the above; maybe, just maybe, Tinfo Mobile would have been a million-dollar baby with some more amazing products. I was spending probably as much time as I could with Tinfo Mobile as I did with Tandem, but time was not the only matter at stake here; rather the new degree of direction it required and which I could not do so by making some critical moves like saying "Hey you know what, maybe I should just focus only on Tinfo and the payoff from that could be much higher than all the other businesses put together". But there were too many things to deal with during that period.
Before I conclude, I should probably talk a little about the two interesting products (ignore the funny sounding names, they were not finalized) we were working on during our last few months.
- We were getting frustrated dealing with telcos taking a large chunk of the revenue share. So we started working on MoFish - an alternative and independent mobile delivery system. Consisting of a PC-based application and a backend that allows content developers to upload their mobile content (ringtones, coupons, games, applications, wallpapers) and for such content to be sold over PCs using ePINs, MoFish allowed consumers to place their handset on a cradle-like device at the POS of retail outlets and download content using the ePINs. I think this was awesome. Think of MoFish cradles on each table in restaurants/coffee shops.
- Xapp! - A flexible rapid mobile application development platform that builds an XML framework by which anyone without coding experience can start creating applications for the mobile and publishing it to a marketplace. I am particularly proud of this one because we were talking about marketplaces much before it became the in-thing.
In January 2008, a month before we shut down, we almost got acquired by an American company. We gave a drop-dead date for the deal to happen. Unfortunately, the other company was taking too much time and crossed the deadline we had set for ourselves. On that day, we did not even discuss closing down or reconsidering it. We just did it without any remorse.
Lesson number Six: Know when to stop. We could have continued persevering. But its important to look at the big picture and see if that fits in with your situation at that point in time.
At Tinfo Mobile, I was the products guy and the hustler. And Anupam, the technologist and the man who put these products together.
My strength was in looking at products from a customer's standpoint and getting obsessed about it – maybe a tad too much than warranted - and selling it. I was fanatic about chasing new alliances, meeting customers, religiously following up and making sure we explored everything possible. I would not let a deal go by unless I heard 'no' quite a few times. Anupam's strength lied in creating beautiful products and adapting to new technologies. We were both obsessed with design, aesthetics and about not becoming a 'me-too'.
It was a genuine collaboration between two friends who grew up together. A co-founder is almost like your life-partner. When you run a start-up, the crap you will go through is tremendous and if you don't have a sort of 'muted' understanding of each other running through all the while, things will hit a standstill much earlier than in normal circumstances. This doesn't mean you will not have your share of differences, there will be several ugly ones too. But it will not stem from ego. And that makes the difference between make or break. Fortunately, we had that muted understanding and stuck to it through all our ups and downs.
Another very important lesson I learnt from my Tinfo Mobile days is about focus. I have mentioned this earlier in the post. Towards the end, we had built up quite a bit of IP and we had a thousand ideas of what to do with it, but very few resources to work on them. Nevertheless, we pursued multiple projects which was a poor decision. At one point, we were developing a Tourism App prototype, mobile advergames for brands, mobile interactive brochures, and partnering with another company to develop an advertisement-supported SMS service (think Google Adwords + SMS). This was wrong especially if you are trying to become a products company. We should have spent time and effort in creating our rockstar, not several rockstars.
In the end, I would liken Tinfo’s experience to an Indie film; fantastic stuff, but limited commercial success.
What was exciting for us was about creating a start-up from Kerala with its vastly different attitude towards entrepreneurship and with absolutely no connection to the ecosystem we were in at that time. In fact, there was one interview that I had given in 2006 talking about how location is not a constraint in the business. This was the biggest driver for us - making something happen out of Kerala. I would now rather try and play each location to its own advantage. But, Kerala is just a dream waiting to happen and I wish the team at Startup Village the very best for the truly, amazing work they are doing.
One last point: we had no mentors to tell us if what we were doing was right or wrong. Neither did we actively seek out any nor was there any such concept in 2002. But it was so much fun figuring out many of these things on your own and I can't explain enough how much these experiences add up to making us who we are and our world-view.
I was back full-time in my family business (well, 'back' is a wrong word, I was never out of it). In 2009, a year later, I was able to front-end the sale of Tandem to the Manipal K-12 group. I spent three years with them (during which the business got acquired by Pearson). I was with the group till July 2012 and am now on to my next gig.
As for Anupam, he went on to join Eko, a mobile banking start-up.
There are several employees who have played a significant part in Tinfo/Tinfo Mobile's growth. Thank you all, once again, for your fantastic work and efforts.
In case you are interested knowing a little more about Tinfo Mobile, this was our interview on CNBC.
(Incidentally, we were the first start-up from Kerala to be featured on the show.)
Jayadev has pretty much covered everything pretty well. My 2 cents exactly:
Cent 1. Should have learnt something about business
I had no clue on how a business was run (not that I know much even now! ;-p), only a passion for creating something that was not created before. This was perhaps a misplaced priority or, a priority that needed serious tempering. Maybe I should have gotten more into the 'business' part of it as well and we would have done something to sustain us through the inflection curve.
Cent 2. You can only survive one marriage at a time.
This is a controversial one. I have blogged about this earlier as well. Just reiterating because it is important. A startup is a marriage, nothing less. It requires a jealously disproportionate amount of pampering and attention. Until it gets to a size when it can sustain and support you, it is a dangerous proposition to get into a real-life marriage. Marriage is a commitment to a person and a relationship. It cannot be a partial commitment, by design. In 2005 I got married and had to take decisions based on this commitment as well. I could not for instance, live on just Maggi Noodles anymore ;), we needed real money for real needs. While it is foolish to 'aim' (I'm no hermit) to live on the bare minimum, its easy to jump off the cliff if you know no one is waiting for you to come back- just in case ;).
Unless one is the superman or Jack Dorsey or has a self-cloning machine in the garage, most mortals can only take one marriage at a time (and have an intent to be successful at it). Need to give one relationship some time to mature before jumping into another one.
Just shared a movie of snapshots taken we had moved to our 'new' office :) Thanks to some ingenious design interventions, this was a bare-bones office set up in record time and at a record cost (compared to what it costs to set up an office space nowadays). The first mobile startup office out of Kerala perhaps? ;)
The 'old' office(s) were either some office space squirreled out of Tandem or Jayadev's relative's residences converted into work-spaces :). Fun!
As Jayadev mentioned, initiatives like Startup Village is great and kudos to the team behind it. Despite having been unable to to continue after having started up, I guess we did sow a seed somewhere and manifested a hidden potential for the state.
Looking forward to a thousand more failures and hundreds of successes out there!