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Two years ago, Binil Antony and his co-founders were broke. They had started borrowing from his friends & family. It was getting tougher to pay salaries to the 3 people he had in his startup. Such, is entrepreneurship.
His Cochin based startup, Dexetra, had been nominated for an award in Delhi. “We had no money for an air ticket. So we borrowed again,” he says.
At the event in Delhi, a chance meeting with Vijay Shekhar Sharma of One97, turned out to be a lifeline for his cash strapped business. “Deepak of Innoz insisted on us attending. Once there, Narayan was introduced to Vijay Shekhar Sharma of One97, who liked the product and the very next day we were offered a term sheet,” says Binil who still recalls those days as vividly as if it were yesterday.
Soon things started to look up for the startup after 8 months of going lean, by November 2011 One97 Mobility invested in Dexetra. “Within a week they agreed to wire the funds as long as our legal team was fine with it,” he recalls.
A startup is always short of money and going lean is the best way to succeed. Developing great products while managing to stay lean is what matters.
The idea behind the Friday App
Who wouldn’t like an intelligent personal assistant to help you with reminders? I would and so would many others who want someone to keep track of day-to-day events, remind them of calls and notify them with updates. This was Dexetra’s big idea. A contextual personal assistant app for Android. The app currently has a user base of more than 600,000 and is growing.
From humble beginnings when its co-founders left their cushy corporate jobs, started off in a crammed up office in Cochin, the startup has come a long way.
The humble beginnings
Back in 2003, Narayan Babu, Eby K Chembola, Nithin John and Binil Antony, the co-founders of Dexetra, were pursuing a degree in Computer Science at KMEA engineering college in Cochin. Back in college itself Binil and Narayan were into the technology, the duo used to organize IT festivals at the college.
Post college, the four of them went on to pursue their individual careers but did keep in touch.
Nitin joined a startup in Cochin, Eby went on to work with Wipro, Binil went to UK for higher studies and Narayan went on to work at Bosch in Bangalore. While at Bosch Narayan met Yaser and Aibin, who later became co-founders, and the trio were working together on mobile navigation and infotainment systems.
Around early 2009, when Android devices started trickling into the market, the trio tried advocating Bosch to move to Android as it has wider potential. However like any big company it was difficult to get through the hierarchy and get the point across.
The same year Google had launched Google Developer Challenge for Android and the prize was $300,000. The group, the trio from Bosch along with Nitin and Eby, got together and started developing an app for the challenge. The team saw that a user had to initiate an actions from a smartphone device to invoke a response, but a smartphone is a personal device and has powerful hardware capabilities to do more. they finally decided on an app idea that would make the smartphone more intuitive and intelligent.
Binil who was visiting India, saw the app and was impressed by it. The deadline for submission was on December 2009. Nearing the deadline, the team soon realised that the project was huge and delivering the incomplete product wouldn’t be good. Binil joined the team in order to help them with raising some pre-seed level fund.
After much searching the team finally met with George, a common acquaintance, who agreed to invest in the product and thereby became their first investor. Says Binil
We did not want to oversell our product and increase the investor’s expectation, in that case we would end up working under pressure which wouldn’t be good for the team or the product.
As soon as the funding came through, the team started with the company filing activities and on April 1, 2010 Dexetra was launched. The team soon moved into their new office at Cochin, which was the size of an extended balcony, hardly big enough to fit the team.
Binil says, “We started working on basic prototypes for Friday App for the Android and BlackBerry platform, but we soon had to disown the BlackBerry version, as the Canadian manufacturer was yet to get their act together.”
The team was yet to finalise on a monetization model, but knew that Ads were not something they wanted in the app. They started to experiment with different models, on the cumilative user base they had then, which was around 105,000 users, but soon realised the user base was too small to come to any conclusion.
When the going gets tough; The tough get going
By now the team had used up a lot of the money that they had initially raised from George. “We raised the money from him in April and it looked like by the end of the year we would be running out of the money. Hence around September, we decided that we had to raise a seed level fund, and started meeting various investors around Cochin, but with no luck.”
They soon realised that the prototyping should go faster with the project and should be out in the market ASAP. “We accelerated our project, but meanwhile by January 2011 we had exhausted our funding, and on February we launched the Alpha version of Friday on the App market,” he adds.
The Alpha version of the app maintained all the data on the device itself making functions like search much faster and had no security issues. But soon, in about 2-3 months time, the team realised that the product was not scalable, as over time the app started accumulating more data within the device and the whole experience became sluggish.
We figured out that the next version of the app needs to be scalable but by then we had run out of money. Just on sheer enthusiasm for the product, we decided to fight on, and decided to go the cloud way.
The startup hired around 3 more people to handle the cloud development and in the meanwhile also borrowed money from friends and family to ensure that the salaries were paid.
IRIS the SIRI for Android
The day iPhone 4s Was announced, Narayan and the team were none too impressed with Siri, the personal assistant Apple touted as a game changer. Binil dared Narayan and the team to do a better job as thought the product could be replicated on Android. Narayan along with their first two employees hacked their NLP and voice module and in a days time came out with IRIS. The app went on to gain a 4.5 million strong user base, post which the team decided to stop development on the platform, as their primary focus was on Friday app.
Arrival at Bangalore, the startup capital
In November 2011, the team moved from Cochin to One97’s office in Bangalore, and the city also turned out to be a good hiring ground for them. On June 2012 the cloud version of Friday app was launched.
Finally on July 20, 2012, the app was listed on Google Play for the first time ever,a product on which the team had been working for over 2 and a half years.
Later on a trip to Singapore, the team met Shailendra Singh of Sequoia Capital. He liked their product and decided to meet with them back in Bangalore. Around the same time smartphone manufacturer Micromax approached the team to develop ‘Aisha’, a product based on the IRIS app, and the OEM partnership worked well for the startup.
By the end of 2012 the team finalised its deals and raised over $1 million from Sequoia Capital and Qualcomm Ventures.
The team is currently 19 people strong with 3 people working on Dial app, an applet that can be used as a standalone or with Friday app. The Friday app currently has over 600,000 users and growing.
A majority (48%) of the users on the Friday app is from the US and so is the case with Dialer app (34%). Friday app has only 7% of its user base in India.
The team think its too early to think about monetization.
The team will be launching ‘API of Life’, an open API for developers in the coming 3-4 months and also plans to work with OEMs in the near future.