More than a year ago, I reviewed MySmartPrice.com a website that allows people to compare the best prices from online retailers. For example you could look up the prices of a particular book from 4-5 websites that sold books. I was a little intrigued by this start-up as I knew its founder.
He was a not the typical 20 something, who are usually the ones who end up creating web start-up companies. He graduated from IIM – Bangalore and gave up a well-paying job along with financial security to create his own web start-up.
I decided to catch up with Sitakanta Ray the founder of MySmartPrice and interview him on his experience of creating an internet start-up company in India.
Q. Could you tell us about your enterprise MySmartPrice.com and what it does?
With MySmartPrice, we want to answer two important questions that every shopper has in mind. They are ‘What to buy?’ and ‘Where to buy it?’. Currently MySmartPrice allows people to quickly compare price of a product across stores. At this point of time we cover mobiles, books, cameras, games and laptops. Over the next few months we will cover all major product categories. Our goal is to become the easiest way to get the best price, for anything sold online.
Apart from this we are also working on answering the what to buy question as well. You can find our first attempt at solving this problem at mysmartprice.com/mobile/finder. We plan to roll out some major improvements to this part of the product in the new future.
Q. MySmartPrice seems to be India centric at the moment and even though India has a very bright future when it comes to online retailing, it also has an unpredictable future. How difficult was it to draw up a business plan?
I think once things become more predictable in an industry, start-ups will find it more difficult to succeed. The fact is big companies have more resource (both talent and money) than start-ups and a lot more experience about operating in stable, predictable times. The hope is to get in the game, understand it and get a big enough lead before they direct their best resources to the game.
Let me confess that I do worry about our own ability to put together the right team, move at the right speed and execute well. But I am much more comfortable about future of e-commerce in India. There are two simple observations that give me the confidence
Our cities are getting congested, rents are going up and we are having more money and less time. All of these will make online commerce more attractive.
If you look at our Tier-II and Tier-III cities, then you will find that supply is not keeping pace with demand. There has been a lot of increase in affordability. TV shows have taken the aspirations higher but supply is lagging behind. People are turning to online shopping to solve that issue.
Having said that now we work on a 12 month plan. There are so many variables, many of which we have no clue about. The idea is to keep extending that time period as we get more clarity both about the industry and our own abilities.
Q. What is your team like? Who came up with the idea of MySmartPrice?
MySmartPrice was started by me and my friend Sulakshan. We have discussed hundreds of ideas in the past 10 years but price comparison was never one of them!! We sort of stumbled onto the idea of MySmartPrice.
I was coming back to coding after 5 years and needed a good challenge. Came across isbn.net.in of Swaroopch and found the problem interesting. So when I finally showed the idea to Sulakshan, he got excited about the possibility for e-commerce in general. That is how we moved from a self assigned project to a proper startup.
Q. How is MySmartPrice going to monetize? Will it serve up ads or sponsored reviews? Or are you looking at a different model which is not generic and relevant only to MySmartPrice?
Monetization is one of the areas where we are most clueless :-). For now we are surviving on AdSense money. The plan is to improve upon affiliate income part. Apart from that we have some ideas but we will need a higher scale to get them to work. It will be interesting to see how they will stack up when the hit the real world.
The trick will be to get the product execution right. If we can truly become the easiest way to find the best price, then monetization will not be a challenge.
Q. We often hear of young kids in their 20s creating a start-up after college well before having personal responsibilities like marriage and kids; in your case it (might?) be different. What were your challenges?
I wish someone had told me that starting your own company when you are young is really a better idea. We had been thinking of starting a company ever since we graduated from college. Every time we used to delay the decision by saying that it will be less risky once we cross this certain milestones. After 10 years we realized that entrepreneurship is never going to be a safe option so we better take the plunge now.
So finally when we decided to take the plunge, I had a 7 month old daughter and my wife had just left her job as well. So everyone in both the families completely freaked when I first mentioned about leaving my job. Fortunately my wife stood by me during that period. In a way that I have been a boring conservative guy all my life worked in my favour :-). Everyone assumed that I must have some Plan-B in my mind even though I had none.
Q. You were in IIM – Bangalore and worked in finance domain for years. I heard you went back to coding after a good 5 years. Why would someone do that? What is love for coding or just that MySmartPrice needed a coding team more than a management team?
Once a geek, always a geek :-). In a way I realized how much I enjoy coding only once I stopped coding. On a more serious note, the final decision was a combination of both my passion and the need of the product. We wanted to build the easiest option to find the best price. Making a product that is absolutely easy and intuitive to use is something that gets Sulakshan excited, whereas I get my kick out of working with millions of records of data and deriving sense out of them. That is how we ended up with this division.
In India, starting new companies is difficult especially for people coming from an academical and services background. There is always family pressure to not start a business as it is termed ‘risky’. What were your challenges and advice to others creating start-ups.
I can talk about geeks and technology companies alone because I have no clue about any other business. (How much clue I have about technology businesses will be known in a couple of years only) If any geek out there is holding back because of worries about “what if my startup fails” then I will ask him to stop worrying right away. The probability a good geek will go jobless because of a failed startup is definitely less than Shahrukh going without a film offer because of some failed movie.
Having said that I can say that creating the product is definitely not the toughest part because we already know a good deal about it. Getting people to notice your product and hiring the talent required by the product are the toughest parts. It may be a good idea to learn about these things also, preferably at someone else’s company. By the way we are hiring.