You’re forgiven if you find yourself caught amidst work and yet leave for the day feeling as if there’s so much more to do. The fact is, that there is so much to do.
As we inch ever closer to the beginning of the second decade of the second millennium, India finds itself grappling with a set of unique problems that only Indians can solve. Of course, there is always help to be found, in the form of capital, mentorship and the relevant infrastructure so to speak, yet, it’s the hands-on approach that Indian teams have always relished, as they strive to solve for Bharat, to make the regional language speakers consume products and services online, and make them more comfortable to transact, and transact in scale, easy enough especially when over half a billion more virtual footprints are expected to be up and running in the next five years.
A nation that recognizes no official national language, stands amidst the crux of a technological revolution provided its regulators, policymakers and investors, both public and private market, stand shoulder to shoulder with each other, united in the belief that a rising tide would lift each and every boat. The twenty-first century belongs to an emerging Asia, a fact acknowledged worldwide, and India finds itself right in the eye of this emergence, the fact that excites Indian entrepreneurs to the hilt.
Today, at Bangalore Insider, we speak to the founders of Niki, an artificial intelligence tool empowering millions of Hindi speakers in India’s hinterlands to browse and transact for products and services online.
Give a brief info about your startup?
Niki is an Indian B2C commerce app, which empowers the 500 million new internet users emerging from Tier 2,3 and 4 towns of India, to transact online by assisting them in every step with assurance through a conversational agent in one’s language. It was founded in March 2015 by four first-generation entrepreneurs and IIT-Kharagpur alumni Sachin Jaiswal, Keshav Prawasi, Nitin Babel and Shishir Modi.
Removing the barriers of complicated interfaces, language and inhibitions regarding online transaction, Niki assures that users never get stuck online and goes the extra mile to ensure every task is successfully completed. The local language conversational platform makes the entire user journey right from initiation to product discovery to transaction, extremely fast, convenient and as simple as talking to an agent.
What made you start your start up and what problem does it solve?
There are 4 of us in the founding team and we all belong to remote Tier 2 and 3 towns in India, where we have observed internet usage first-hand. We have seen people in our own family as well as our extended circle of friends and relatives struggle to keep pace with technology; hesitating to complete transactions online or use the apps that are so ubiquitous in metropolitan and Tier 1 cities.
Inspired to fill this huge gap and enable the Non-English speaking population of Bharat, we wanted to build a product for the masses where one could take care of all the important online transactions over simple conversations, in their own language. As a result, Niki was born in 2015 to provide a platform that users can talk to in their own language while it assists them through every step of online transaction. Our goal has been to simplify every online transaction for the new internet users emerging from Indians living in tier 2 and tier 3 cities who are yet to transact online due to interface or language barriers and lack of trust in the online ecosystem, when it comes to money.
Tell us about yourself, your previous jobs/ventures? What were you doing before this startup?
Being from an entrepreneurial family, I always believed my father’s word on taking calculated risks. He always encouraged me towards entrepreneurship. Both my parents have been extremely supportive throughout my journey as an entrepreneur.
Right from my time at IIT-Kgp and throughout my professional career I have found myself in entrepreneurial roles. During my time at IIT-Kgp, I built the AIESEC chapter of Kharagpur from scratch. We raised funds for the organisation and managed to build a 100-member team with strong global representation.
After graduating in 2012, I began my professional journey with Energo Engineering and started its Renewable Energy division, leading to the company’s first solar plant. Post my stint at Energo, I began my startup journey as the Head of Strategic Initiatives at IndiaReads where I led a number of new initiatives, including the launch of their e-book platform. All these experiences helped develop a zeal for entrepreneurship as well as confidence in my own leadership and multi-tasking abilities. That helped a lot when it came to taking the plunge and launching Niki. At Niki, I take care of the investment as well business side of things along with hiring like-minded contributors.
Where is your startup based out of? Why do you think that is the best place for you?
As a start-up founder, what are you paranoid about? What keeps you awake at night?
I strongly believe in the potential of technology to create transformative solutions. I believe that India has a very huge consumer base that is looking for large-scale solutions and giving that solution has become my passion. The resolve to building an exemplary product for Bharat and for every new internet users has become my dream. I constantly think on simplifying for every Indian who transact online and make India truly digital India.
Who are your competitors and how are you better than them?
Even though there are existing platforms to transact online, none of them could resolve the pain-points of the masses who are yet to transact online due to complicated interfaces or language barriers. Niki is the first of its kind voice and India’s Regional language enabled B2C platform, which is empowering the Non-English speaking population of Bharat to do online transactions.
The existing alternatives for online transactions have complex user interfaces that first-generation internet users find very hard to navigate. Niki, on the other hand, is designed as a your local friendly agent for the new internet users who can avail online services just by talking, in a language they are comfortable with, keeping the experience similar to the offline world, where every service is availed through conversations, the medium that humans are most familiar with.
Language has been one of the biggest roadblocks in the adoption of online transactions among India’s growing internet population – With multilingual support, Niki is the first app to make online transactions possible for the new internet users. Statistically, while 90% of current digital voice-assistants in India communicate in English, Niki’s Hindi voice feature gives power to over 44% Indians or about 572 million Hindi-speaking Indians, to use technology in their first language.
How hard is it to have a work-life balance as a start-up founder and how do you manage it?
For me, work-life balance is frankly very difficult to maintain, especially when we are on a rapid growth stage. At most times, work ends up becoming the first and foremost priority. As a founder, I am so attached to the problem set, consumers, my team and the company in general, it is extremely difficult to take mind off it. What I manage to do at times is to take breaks / vacations which restores the balance and takes mind off the day-to-day hustle. I have gotten used to my routine and so a day with so sine-curve feels too boring. Still figuring out how to bring balance.
Have you raised funding? If yes, then we would like to know the details. If no then please tell us if you are looking to raise.
Yes, we are backed by US-based venture fund EMVC, Mr. Ratan Tata, Ronnie Screwwala’s Unilazer ventures and Japan’s Recruit Strategic Partners among some other investors.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about you? Why do they have that? What’s the reality?
There are many misconceptions I would say – one that I can recall is that people think I am strong and go through situations swiftly figuring things on my own. The fact is, its possible for me given the co-founders and mentor that I have who I know always have my back and so I can be fearless and full of optimism in any tough scenario. I have realised the importance of co-founders and mentors being on this journey for over 4 years now. We all go through our ups and downs, making mistakes, along the way, but the important thing is to continue to learn, not repeat them the next time and stand up when things pull you down.
What gets you excited about this company?
Niki is solving a problem for the new internet users of India, and the market size and scope of the solution is massive. It is solving a major social problem for the underserved 500 million users, using a unique patented solution that is designed specifically keeping the target audience in mind.
For our efforts and innovation Niki is received numerous industry awards including Nasscom emerge 50, Startup50, HDFC Digital Innovation Summit, Deep Tech Award at AWS Mobility Awards, India fintech awards (IFTA), Superstartups asia, and Forbes 30 under 30 along with support from veterans like US-based venture fund EMVC, Ratan Tata and Ronnie Screwwala’s Unilazer ventures the best-known investors in India and Silicon Valley.
Tell us how a day in your life looks like? Your schedule for a day right from the time you get up till you hit the bed at night.
I begin my day with some emails, sending out follow-ups and setting my task list for the day. The next activity hovers around my calendar and reaching on time to run my day as per the scheduled calendar. As the day progresses, I take stock of the key business metrics and most of my office hours run on a tight 1-on-1 with the team, calls/meetings with business associates and some external business meetings. I hit for a 1 hour workout in the evening, post which I am back home and that’s when I get some breather to carry tasks on my own. I like to cook my dinner at times. But most times, the day ends with a book or a few phone calls, catching up with friends/family.
Tell us about your team and how did you meet each other?
The team behind Bharat’s local agent Niki, is a rare combination of academic excellence, technical expertise, and hands-on experience.
There are 4 of us in the founding team, and all of us hail from IIT Kharagpur. Sachin Jaiswal, our CEO, worked with Oracle as a Product Manager and later co-founded Innovaccer – a data analytics company. Keshav Prawasi comes with a Computer Science background and worked with Amazon for 4 years building architectures at scale. Our fourth co-founder Nitin Babel worked with Ipsos doing Marketing Analytics for Fortune 500 firms before Niki.
We all have very similar backgrounds and are strong believers in the potential of technology to create transformative solutions. We believe that India has a very huge consumer base that is looking for large-scale solutions. The resolve to building an exemplary product for Bharat and the new internet users was something we all had in common.
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