Meet The Man Who Is Helping Businesses Chat With You

Deepak Ravindran, Founder, Lookup, and serial entrepreneur, has roped in the likes of Biz Stone (Co-founder,Twitter) as investors; in conversation with 4ps B&m

Deepak Ravindran, Founder, Lookup, and serial entrepreneur, has roped in the likes of Biz Stone (Co-founder,Twitter) as investors; in conversation with 4ps B&m

How many startups have you nurtured? How did the idea of Lookup come up?

I have nurtured three startups till date.

(1) Innoz (2007- 2013): The world’s largest offline search engine on SMS.

(2) Quest (2014, Bay Area): A location based query platform

(3) Lookup (2015-present): An app that allows consumers to chat directly with local businesses

Taking my first steps in the town of Thrissur in Kerala, I grew up where everything one needed was bought from small local shops, be it groceries, electronics, medicine, or clothes.

Most of the retail outlets are very small, and one may not have the thing one wants. This is a problem not just in small towns, but even a tech-savvy city like Ban-galore. Though people may have gotten used to shopping in malls or ecommerce sites, they still run to the local drugstore for stomach flu pills or the BP medication that they run out of. I did some research on how people talk to local businesses, and found that there was no central and easy to use service that solved this problem. Most of the people were still using the traditional way of calling stores. So I thought of a solution – what if a message sent before you set out for a shop told you if the pharmacy has that pill in stock or not? Or what if you can take a picture of the doctor’s prescription with your phone and send it to a nearby shop? And communicate with them without sharing any confidential data like your phone number? That’s how I came up with the main idea of Lookup.

The idea for Lookup struck me like a light bulb when I was visiting my hometown in Kerala. I saw my mom chatting with her grocer over WhatsApp and placing an order. That was truly an eye-opener for me since I discovered people were using chat for an all-new purpose. With WhatsApp, I noticed that once people saved each other’s contact numbers, they could view the other’s frequently changing display pictures and statuses. This came with some privacy issues. I created Lookup to address those issues, ensuring consumers do not have to worry about their privacy being invaded when chatting with storekeepers they have never met before.

Is chat based commerce going to be the future of e-commerce?

Yes. Chat is eating the world. According to Chris Messina, inventor of Hashtag, 2016 will be the year of conversational commerce. Everyday people are discovering that the chat platform is not just a medium through which they can interact with people but also a platform for accomplishing various day-to-day tasks. Chat is becoming the main medium through which people are getting things done. Every new app that is being launched comes with a learning curve. This is where chat apps have an edge over other apps since they surpass this barrier owing to their simple singular user interface. And that’s why, it is the second largest medium of communication in the world.

The thought of connecting producers to consumers through chat was very appealing for they could solve the ever-existing problems of miscommunication, time lag and several other redundancies. I strongly believe that the chat platform is the way forward to answer people’s queries, albeit with a personal touch. The chat platform is creating a big revolution in the global retail market and it is evident that the chat interface is becoming an integral part of this modern conversing society.

Your new initiative Lookup has successfully managed to close funding from the likes of Biz Stone (co-founder of Twitter), Narayana Murthy (Catamaran Ventures) Vinod Khosla (Khosla Impact Fund) and Oliver Samwer (Global Founders Capital). What is the most important thing a founder needs to keep in mind while approaching a VC?

Great investors back founders who have a great vision. They not only provide monetary support, but also take time in mentoring and turning ideas into reality. It is all about execution in the end and not just a great idea. Also, most of the investments happen with strong introductions. One has to constantly build their reputation and network to create an imprint on the minds of the investors.

What according to you is the key thing that investors are looking for in a startup and its founder?

Great vision, brilliant product and excellent team.

You dropped out of college in India to pursue your dreams, but it was your stint at MIT in the US that helped you catch the attention of Biz Stone. Tell us more about your initial years and the most important lessons.

“Some years ago – never mind how long precisely… nothing particular interested 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 captured my state of mind when I ventured out as an entrepreneur to avoid the job-seeking rat race but pursue something new. I’ve always wanted to become an entrepreneur.

I was born and raised in a small town called Thrissur in Kerala. I had been fascinated by electronics from a young age but it was not until I turned 12 that I saw a computer in a science exhibition! To be able to afford one at the time was close to impossible. My father proposed a challenge – if I scored over 80% in my forthcoming exams, he would buy me one. Academia was not one of my strong suits, but this was an exciting dare and I managed to score a distinction. My fascination with computers and internet began on the Pentium III home computer and 56 kbps modem with internet access. I started creating websites for local stores, and was hungry to learn and create. That was my driving spirit. The internet opened my mind to a whole new world and I was instantly hooked. I have always enjoyed wide-open pursuits where I can create without any constraints. As a 16 year old boy in high school, I sourced and sold tech magazines and 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 in order to pursue a bigger dream. From the confidence of my first venture, I moved onto chasing bigger dreams. I also launched an e-commerce/deal website, Just4sale.in, during my high school summer vacation before I got admission for college. The website failed because of the lack of team support. Failure did not disappoint me so I never stopped experimenting. I later decided to study engineering to source a team for my next idea. At the age of 21, after joining Kannur University to study Computer science, I dropped out and co-founded Innoz along with 3 friends – Hisam, Ashwin and Abhinav. We started a service called 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 have overtaken laptops and PCs. This fact motivated us to build a cost effective platform on mobiles for instant information. Everybody – irrespective of age, location or vocation – has questions to ask, be it simple or complex. Not everyone with a query has access to the internet to get the answer. Imagine being able to get all the information you ever needed by just sending an SMS! SmsGYAN did just that. When the service started going viral, we decided to build a company around it and named it Innoz (coined shortly for innova­tion). SmsGYAN later became the world’s largest offline search engine allowing its 130 million users to text any question and get answers immediately, without the need for internet on their mobile phones! The product boomed in a few years which was followed by partnerships with every tele­communications provider in India, and it soon came preloaded on devices. We were profitable from day one. We monetised it through cellular subscription, one rupee per query, and developed a subscriptions model of 30 rupees per month.

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Then came Android. When low-end Android phones hit the market, smart-phone penetration skyrocketed. In Sep­tember of this year, India was named the fourth largest smartphone market, with 111 million connected devices. Accept­ing that the market had moved on, and knowing that me and my team had built a product worth salvaging, we looked to emerging markets abroad. Other coun­tries reached out to us for the service we built, especially in Africa and Southeast Asia where internet usage as well as the number of smartphone users was much lower in comparison to India. As a result of this demand, we decided to give away the source code for free via www.offlinein­ternet.org

Thereafter, in 2013, I started my next venture named Quest which was targeted at the US market and raised seed funding from 500 start-ups and other angel inves­tors. Quest was a Q&A app with inbuilt geo-tagging to help users find others nearby who can answer questions. I built it with a friend Mohammed Hisamuddin – one of my college mates who co-founded Innoz, the startup behind the SMSGyan app. Unfortunately, Quest was not able to gain significant market share in the US, where there are a few players in this space like Jelly, Quora, etc.

Lookup was the successor. It was born from the usage pattern that we observed while working on Quest. A lot of the queries on Quest were related to local businesses. Some even got responses from those running the outlets.

I launched Lookup in 2015 and posi­tioned it as an instant messaging app that connects users with local businesses. It allows retailers to respond instantly and never miss a query or a potential sale. It guarantees the user a response within 5 minutes and allows them to find prices and availability of products or services, book appointments, or make reservations at restaurants in one’s locality.

Biz Stone and I knew one another on a need-to-know basis, as my previ­ous startup Innoz had a partnership with Twitter. What started off as a general ex­change of ideas on the Indian market and its potential, turned into an investment discussion on Lookup. He also introduced me to Twitter’s other founder, Jack Dorsey, who I turned to for advice.

Facebook also has introduced chatbots. Is it going to help Lookup spread its reach faster?

We are going to launch a Lookup bot inside Facebook shortly. Previously, we launched Lookup inside Twitter called Lookuplite.

What are your plans for Lookup for the future? Where do you see it 5 years from now?

Our future plan is to have 1 million local businesses and 3 million users by 2017 on our platform.

India has over 40 million small urban businesses with less than 10 employees each. These include everything from coffee shops and groceries to small restaurants. Traditional organized retail never really got big in India, our bet is that mobile commerce will leapfrog it and work with mom and pop stores. About 95% of these small merchant businesses (SMBs) do not have a good digital presence.

The future of Lookup would be to bring all the SMB’s online and enable them to do commerce over chat, which we be­lieve is the simplest platform that everyone understands. We want Lookup to become one among the top five apps in India in the next five years.

You are a big soccer fan and it seems that the world of business is not much different from that of soccer. Recently, Leicester City won the Premier League. The odds of Leicester winning at the beginning of the season were 5000/1 and yet the David managed to beat the Goli­ath. Is Lookup also the David of hyperlo­cal business ready to take on the Goliath and bring about a disruption!

There is over $10 billion invested in all ecommerce companies in India so far. The odds of Lookup beating these well-funded companies is tough. However, we believe our model is very innovative, and nothing is impossible. Leicester City is definitely an inspiration.

As a young founder, what is your best advice to the budding entrepreneurs?

Take chances when you are young, tell stories when you are old.

A leader you look up to?

By far, my mentor and role model has been Kris Gopalakrishnan, one of the co­founders of Infosys. The biggest learning I got from him was humility. No matter how big and far you get, maintain the simplic­ity in your life. In other words, work more, worry less. Despite being one of the richest Indians in the world, he leads a simple life and is the humblest of all people. That is how I want to define my life as well.

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