“Now, I would like to take you through the journey of Unicommerce of 26 months. We have learnt a lot. But I have ‘Cherry Picked Six Key’ learnings to share with you from products’ perspective, from sales perspective, selling to enterprise, selling to SMEs.” – Ankit Pruthi at Unpluggd
The speech by Ankit Pruthi of Unicommerce at Unpluggd, the prestigious start up event hosted by NextBigWhat at Bangalore in June 2014. For those who prefer to read rather than listen, the text is here –
“It’s good to see that there are a lot of people here who have just started up or have a startup baby of a year or two old. And before I begin I really want to ask a couple of questions – how many people here are thinking that whether they should startup or not? How many of them? Ok. There are a few of them. And how many of you thinking whether you should do or thinking of doing a tech product company? Anyone doing a tech product company? Ok, that’s quite a few.
So we are actually a tech product company. Let me start by introducing Unicommerce to you. So Unicommerce is a tech product company. We are essentially offering a tech platform to ecommerce companies and to sellers, who are selling on multiple market places- enabling them to manage their order, inventory and warehouses to a centralized place. Yes it’s a cloud based product.
We are founded in 2012, about 2 years back, 26 months to be exact. And we have more than 250 clients right now – enterprises plus SMEs. And collectively they would be processing close to 30,000 to 35,000 orders a day through our system. And that would essentially means around a million orders flow through our system every month. Now, I am not sure about the entire ecommerce industry numbers, but this would essentially mean 8% to 10% of total Indian ecommerce industry – that’s what we have been doing.
The company was co-founded by 3 co-founders from IIT Delhi. We were from the same batch, same hostel. We have known each other for about 12 years before starting this. So we really had great chemistry, spent hours together within college and after college.
And it was October sometime- October 2011 when we decided to do this. Now, I would like to take you through the journey of Unicommerce of 26 months. We have learnt a lot. But I have ‘Cherry Picked Six Key’ learnings to share with you from products’ perspective, from sales perspective, selling to enterprise, selling to SMEs. And these six learnings I really want you – I want to take you guys through these six learnings.
And one of it actually happened before we started. So it was 3 months before we started our company and we realized that all three of us, ever since 7 -8 years wanted to start a company. And we just could not start it because of one reason or other reason.
Because we were not in the same city, because Karun was getting married, then I had to do an MBA, then Vibhu was getting married. We could not do this any of these years. And eventually it happened when probably we were at the peak of our personal responsibilities.
All of us were married, all of us had a kid and I had to pay back my education loan. Then we thought if we could it now, we could have done it any time in the past. That’s the point – that with growing age your responsibilities keep on increasing. And there will be never a point that you will think – now is the right time it would really happen, I don’t think it would happen. So my point here is that, many times people don’t do what they want to do for the fear of worst. And what is the worst that could happen?
I think the worst is already happening when your life is just passing by and you are not living your dream. So my point here is Just Do It. Do It Right Now. I won’t say just blindly jump into it …like I knew I had a loan to pay but even if I don’t pay the loan for like 15 months, I know that bank people are not coming after me. So the ground rule can be set here is probably if you have a place to live and you have 12 to 15 months of survival money – you can start now. That’s what we did in October 2011.
We left our jobs and while serving our notice period, we were thinking what idea to implement. And it took us good 3 months time to come up with an idea of inventory and warehouse management, which is probably a 100 year old idea. And I think we all set to prove what – to prove this famous quote- “Success is 1% idea and 99% execution”. Now we strongly believe in this quote and did believe in it then.
See, basically we evaluated many number of systems and nitty-gritties and subtleties in world, in processes, in technologies, in representation of the product to understand what execution is. And essentially what differentiates successful product versus an unsuccessful product.
We are not saying we are an established company. We are very far from where we want to be. But having achieved what we have achieved in last two years, we consider it as success in its own term. And I would like to believe that we testify this statement to a good extent.
Now so the phase 1, the step one for our startup was ready. We had an idea in mind, but the next step was productifying it. So, none of us have ever been in operations or supply chain or ever worked in this domain. None of us ever visited a warehouse in our entire life. So, how will we go for building this product? That’s when we decided let us read some.
We bought a book on warehouse management. It’s a book by Karen Richard. You will be laughing that this would be the first book after schooling all three of us put together. And you would be laughing that these guys were developing software by reading a book. But it didn’t do it.
See book was- the intent of the book was to understand what the procedures are, what are the terms and what are the jargons. So if I go and meet up these industry experts they won’t laugh at me, it won’t embarrass me. So that’s what happened. We read the book and many other books, when going to meet many people. And then there is this kind gentleman Mr. Ankush Mehra who comes with 25 years of warehousing experience in retail with Reliance and many other companies and is right now co-founder the Limeroad.com. He really helped us get the product right in first go. He gave us good domain knowledge.
Apart from this, we also watched Yourtube videos for hours, videos of Amazon Fulfillment, Videos of other big ecommerce warehouses across the world. We visited a lot of warehouses, not once several times within the country- retail warehouses, ecommerce warehouses. We spent close to 30 to 45 days before writing a single line of code. Ok. This happened during mid December to January 2012.
And then for next three months we locked ourselves in a room- in a basement room, wrote the code for it and got the product ready in a next 3 months. And by the end of the 4th month to our startup, we had a very good nice beautiful product Uniware, which we decided to launch and get a feedback from the market. And the feedback was tremendous. I mean within 3 months of its launch, we signed up 8 enterprise clients. Of which we signed up companies like- Bluestone, Snapdeal, Jabong; and by the end of 7 months of startups we were close to 8000 orders a day through our system. And this is like two and a half lakh orders a month.
We had statistics of cash flows flowing to the system. We were cash flow positive within 7 months that is when we decided to do a PR with Next Big What. And it really helped us because we got good investor interest flowing into the company. That’s when we met Nexus and within 2 to 3 months from PR, we closed a round with them.
We were really in a comfortable position 10 months down the line of starting our company. We were VC funded and we were cash flow positive. That’s a good comfortable position to be in. But during the same time we got a very good interesting learning that will be applicable to all the tech product companies in the industry who are dealing with enterprise clients specially.
I won’t call it learning because it was more of a decision at our end. We decided not to customize our product specific for clients and do configuration of the product. I will explain a bit, so 3 to 4 months into handling enterprise clients. There was a steady stream of customized requirements flowing from all directions- from all enterprise clients. Now these customized requirements could be as lame as- my warehouse manager is a left hander, so why don’t you put this submit button left hand side on the screen, it will be easier for him. Or it could be highly specific, highly genuine.
I am not saying you should not listen to your customer but should not blindly follow him. That’s very important because if you decide to use these tools right, these tools here are developers, product managers. If you decide to pick up these tools for every client, then your product is not a product anymore. It’s a project. And with 5 to 7 clients or 5 to 7 such projects running in your company – it will just kill the nimbleness of your startup. It will just kill the much needed nimbleness of your startup. And you will just procrastinate your end result which is shutting down. So I would strongly recommend against it. I would say this is a deadly no and if you decide to do it, declare yourself as a service company. Declare your product as project and probably charge – most importantly 5 to 6 to 7 times more than what you charge for a product. Then only it’s a scalable service model.
We decide to remain a product company and we said- decided to handle customization in two ways. One would be we will build every customization as a configuration in the system. So if the client wants, he can configure it at his own end and if he doesn’t want it, he doesn’t configure it. So basically it ended up as a feature in the product rather than customized development which is specific to a client. That’s how we handled specific customization in one way.
And the second or better way could be – say politely– this is not the best practice and you should not do it. The best practice which we already have in the product. You should implement it in this way. So these are the two things saying no and putting it as a configuration really helped and work for us. And these thoughts and new VC money coming in, we were all set to ramp up to add more clients.
In the next 12 to 13 months we reached out to every mid size, large size company in the country and signed up quite a few different vertical office suppliers- jewelry, furniture, apparels; signed quite a few company. And end of 20 months that was December 2013, there were around 50 enterprise clients doing 20,000 orders a day through our system. And during this period itself, we started working on another product which was targeted towards SMEs. Now these SMEs are the sellers who are selling on multiple market places like Amazon, eBay, Flipkart or Snapdeal. Now these sellers are typically SMEs, distributors, small manufacturers, boutique stores- it could be anything.
And working with them is really different experience than working with these enterprise companies which we have been working with. And we launched 20 months milestone I have put here because we have launched our SMEs product during this time.
You can see this payback during the last 6 months we have added quite a few brands and big ecommerce companies into our client portfolio. Apart from that we have added 200 SME clients. That’s why you can see the payback from 50 clients to 250 clients and our order volume per day has gone from 20,000 to 35,000.
Now, I… last six months working with these SMEs were really… we got to learn a lot during last six months. Because SMEs are very different from enterprise clients as I said in terms of sales, in terms of support, in terms of product.
The most important learnings are- I would like to share here next would be from sales perspective -when we reach out to these clients, there were some unsaid truths about SMEs industry in India that SMEs are the customers who know what they want but they don’t want to pay for it. They want it free. This is something- it’s very earlier on to say we don’t certify and we consider it as a myth.
Because, if you go to a customer, you demonstrate a value proposition in customer’s own language, in his own terms – the value proposition could be that you are saving him money; you are reducing his cost, increasing sales or improving efficiency or accuracy in his system and delivering xyz. Believe me he would be the first to come up with the objective value of your product, associate a value with it. Because these are the people who have a very good business acumen in business sense. Because many of them have grown 50-100 Crore business in a few years while people like us were preparing for IIT or fighting for may be 15% to 20% hike in their respective jobs. These are the people who come up with those 100-500 Crore businesses. So they, within flick of seconds, within a few minutes associate the value with your product. Ok…this product is worth Rs. 1 Lakh rupee a value a month or 50,000 a month to me.
And like any logical person, they won’t mind paying for it. I am quite sure they would bargain it to their last breathe but they will buy. So the lesson we have learnt here is that don’t flex your muscle when it comes to pricing. Don’t flex your muscle, wait for it. Even if you have to leave the offer on the table, wait for it. That client might come to you two weeks down the line or two months down the line. That’s the approach we have taken. It has been working good so far. Let’s see how it goes.
The second learning which we had was again to sell to business owners since they have to pay for the product. If they are convinced you are done. There is no need to sell to the end users. This pretty much holds true in the case of enterprise sales.
If I go to and sell to Jabong, Snapdeal; I don’t have to go and meet their warehouse people and convince them – this is good product, use it. But when it comes to selling to SMEs, we take the case of Tally. I am a business owner and we use Tally. I am not a great fan and still we are using it as my CEO is the end user and is accustomed to it.
So when it comes to SMEs, always and always sell to the end users. Even I will go to the extent of saying that if you have to choose to sell to anyone – sell to the end user. If he is not satisfied- pre-sales / post-sales, he will creep about the product to the boss and I really doubt you will get the second check for your product.
Since we are into cloud, we have to get checks regularly. So I would go to the extent to say that to having more and more trained people on your product eventually is like growing your own customer base or knowledge base.
In the last learning which I would like to share is around ramping up. In the last six months since we have added 100 to 200 plus clients, there were a lot of things going on in terms of sales, product, support. And one thing that I would emphasize here is you should build strong support team before really ramping up the sales. Whenever I talk on all these, one instance come to my mind.
When a seller with his mom walked into our office and they said they wanted to meet the CEO, which was me. And I was unaware of the agenda, had no clue what’s about to happen. And we stepped into the meeting room and the first sentence which I heard was “Do you want us to shut down our business, because your support guys are not picking up the phone.” I was totally clueless. That monologue of criticizing went on probably for 10 minutes. And I was on the hearing end and probably apologized 10 times within those 10 minutes. It was really like mom scolding me for not doing my science project right. It was not good. It was a bad experience. But it was a very good learning.
Right after the meeting we put strong processes around, for support we hired bigger team, we implemented a good ticketing system. We had a system; we implemented more reporting around it. So we were using desk.com. We enforced SLA, so we right now work with the service level of 30 minutes of non automated system support. And that seller is actually one of the happiest clients we have right now. And we do have his testimonials and his picture on our website too.
So basically when dealing with the SMEs, they are very critical about these two things. They are supper critical about non delivery of committed stuff and they are critical about support services. So whatever may happen, don’t fudge on these two things. So simple things we did to avoid this was like – whenever we commit something – we have a sales team around 20 people, going and meeting 1000 sellers every month and committing different things to them.
But whenever we sign up a proposal, we make sure that we get a sign from a seller on what we have committed. This is a practice we have imposed to make sure that there is nothing non committed stuff going from our side. Similarly, we worked on our support side and I am sure there is no bad name about our product in the market. Because these SMEs work in clusters right and it’s very easy to spread a bad name around the industry and we really worked on avoiding that.
So I would like to end here with the summary of all these six learnings. I am quite sure that we have just crashed the tip of SME ice-burg. There is a lot to learn which we will learn in the coming years. So these are the six learnings I would like to share now. Any questions? ”