Startup Juice: Have ‘deeper insights’ and not just ‘mere observations’ – Meet Ajay Sethi, Founder of Ziva software.

i went gung ho about JustDial’s kick-butt search accuracy and always wanted to meet the guys who power JustDial’s search service.

And my search ends in the name of Ziva. Here is presenting our interview with Dr. Ajay Sethi, founder of Ziva.

In this interview, Ajay talks about Ziva, shares his insights on Indian mobile industry and has very practical tips to budding entrepreneurs .
I did a separate podcast with him and will publish it in a day or two.

[On Ziva]

Tell us more about Ziva.
Ziva’s goal is to help any mobile user – whether SMS-based or GPRS-based or 3G-based – to get the exact and precise information from anywhere on the web and/or from the community. What makes Ziva different is our goal to do so in the least number of interactions.
Towards this end, Ziva has developed an innovative and interactive mobile answer engine system that derives user’s intent by asking a few relevant, meaningful, and personalized questions – just like a friend would do – and, thereby, help users to quickly find exactly what they want.

In order to help users to get answers from their social networks, Ziva has developed a mobile-specific social networking system that has been seamlessly integrated with the search system.

Please share some details about the founders. Your past avatar/background?
Ziva was founded by Dr. Ajay Sethi in March 2005. Before starting Ziva, Ajay was Director of Business Intelligence products at Oracle. He worked with Oracle (in the Bay Area) for several years before relocating to Bangalore in Nov 2000. He has degrees from IIT Mumbai (B.Tech in CS; graduated in 1990), Rice University (Ph.D. in parallel compilers), and UC Berkeley (Certificate in Finance).

Sameer Shisodia and S. Gowri joined Ziva during the first 9 months and have led the development of various technologies and platforms built by Ziva. In addition, Bipin Kumar, Siddhartha Reddy, and Nikhil Chhaochharia joined us in the middle of 2006.

This core team has been involved with everything that Ziva has done so far: product development, pre-sales work, post-sales work, sys admin tasks, hiring, etc.

Given the fact that there are other big players in Indian mobile market, and companies like Google are entering the Indian market too, why do you think Ziva has a differentiator?
Due to the ease-of-use and suitability of the SMS medium for information services, SMS-based data services have taken off in a big way in most of the world. Even in India, GPRS users constitute approx. 5% of total mobile subscriber base and, therefore, information access and search needs to be provided on the SMS.

Right from the first day, Ziva’s goal has been to build platforms that not only cater to the needs of the GPRS users but also provide full power and flexibility to the SMS-based users. Ziva’s interactive mobile search paradigm is unique and simple to use.

It offers an easy and intuitive interface to the beginners and, at the same time, it provides power and flexibility to the expert users. In addition, intertwined search and social networking capabilities offered by Ziva are, most likely, the first instance of such integration. Interactive search paradigm combined with social networking capabilities have helped Ziva launch an extremely useful “social search” system.

Please share a few details of your partnership deals. Especially with JustDial.
Ziva has built two platforms: Manas Platform and Peepal Network. Manas platform supports intelligent and interactive search while Peepal Network supports mobile-specific social networking capabilities. Ziva’s platforms are being used by 15 well-known B2C companies in India. These are in the fields of yellow pages, mobile content, bollywood content, printed media content, m-coupons, etc.

Our platforms have been evaluated and beta-tested by several companies over the last 18 months. We are happy and proud that our interactive search paradigm has been found to be intuitive and easy-to-use by everyone. In addition, our platform has been able to scale rapidly and we have shown that it can handle high volumes very comfortably.

JustDial is using Ziva’s Manas platform for powering their mobile-based as well as web-based search. Manas platform supports a full-fledged rule-based merchandising module, personalization engine, phonetics matching algorithms for the Indian languages, flexible and customizable display capabilities, etc.
Manas platform is highly configurable and can be easily customized to meet customer’s requirements. Manas platform was able to handle all the business rules that JustDial folks have developed based on their 10+ years of experience.

JustDial’s site has been extremely popular right from the day it was launched and it has been able to scale to meet the demands of the rapidly growing volumes.

Could you please let us know what’s Zook?
Zook has been launched as a leisure- and entertainment-oriented mobile search service with a focus on young adults. It is, most likely, the first mobile search service in India that enables users to search for ringtones, wallpapers, mobile games, jokes, etc. across several content providers. It allows users to search for more than 200,000 content entities from a single interface.

In addition to the mobile content, Zook provides support for several information categories: restaurants, events, movies, cricket, etc. These categories should enable Zook to cater to the needs of other segments of users as well.
Over time, we want Zook to become a single place for finding any information from any category (and, therefore, from anywhere on-the-web or off-the-web – i.e., knowledge possessed by the community).

Based on user feedback, we plan to increase the breadth and the depth of the service by adding more categories, more content, and more actions. In addition, Zook’s integrated social networking system provides the ability to get one’s social circle involved for answers as well as for inputs (such as ratings, reviews, etc.) for making decisions.

In a world where creating a brand identity is a huge challenge, why did you choose to have two separate brands? Zook and Ziva?
Ziva and Zook have separate identities and separate target audiences: Ziva is the parent brand and will be used to advertise and market Ziva’s platform to the B2C companies. Zook is the end-user brand that will be used to market the mobile search service.

We wanted a catchy name for our search service and, therefore, picked a short name that can also be used as a verb. (It has been derived from “Look” (by replacing “L” with “Z”). We also hope that the “Z” in Zook will help us establish a connection with the parent brand and the company name.)

What’s your business/revenue model? Advertising? Licensing?
Depending on the circumstances and requirements, Ziva has explored various business models. We have had purely licensing deals as well as purely revenue sharing deals. However, most of the times we prefer a hybrid model that has combination of licensing and revenue sharing component.

Zook is exploring multiple options to make money. Ziva has built an ad platform with dynamic category-based keyword bidding capabilities. The primary focus in this regard is towards enabling suitable actions for the vendors.

For example, when people search for movies, Zook will not only provide the relevant information quickly but also support relevant actions such as: download music/ringtones, purchase m-ticket and get it delivered, rent corresponding DVD and get it delivered, etc. In other words, we plan to utilize pay-per-action (in addition to pay-per-click and pay-per-impression) as the possible monetization options.

Any plans to integrate your services with Maps services? If possible, please share what feature/services are in the pipeline?
Ziva’s multi-faceted search capabilities make it easy and natural to be integrated with the Maps service. In fact, we have worked with mobile operators to successfully utilize the available LBS information (e.g., longitude and latitude information or the tower location information) for improving the search results.

We are working on several features that will help us reach out to a larger set of audience, to make the search service easier to use, to increase Zook’s recall, etc.

Given the fact that the ARPU levels are really low in India, and the maximum penetration is among the cheap handsets, please share some insights on the opportunities/issues with Indian mobile market.
Indian market has shown its propensity for the entertainment (esp. mobile content such as ringtones, wallpapers, games, etc.) over the last few years. Jokes and SMS forwards are perpetual favorites amongst young adults – esp. college students. Information-related queries (such as yellow pages, travel, cricket scores, etc.) have been steadily growing. Overall, the patten of usage is consistent with the other Asian countries with similar demographic distribution.

Despite the lack of penetration of mobile Internet among Indian subscribers, Indian market has demonstrated a fairly high mobile content consumption and high affinity towards SMS-based data services.

Note that this is despite the fact that there has been no mobile search service available to the Indian customers – therefore, this is despite the fact that no one has, as yet, exploited the opportunities provided by long-tail of consumption.
In other parts of the world, even simple database-based mobile search systems have shown that they help increase the size of the pie substantially. Therefore, we believe that the Indian market is ready for services that help customers find what they need in an easy and intuitive manner.

Please share some of the user adoption numbers.
We are still in the early days – we did a limited beta testing for 8 weeks before doing a public launch in Mar 2007.

As of right now, we are actively collecting feedback, analyzing successful and failed queries as well as the usage patterns, and, based on that, tweaking and fine-tuning the system. So far, we have received positive feedback from most of our customers regarding our interaction paradigm.
However, majority of our users have reconfirmed something that we wanted to do from the first day: they have indicated the need for lowering the cost of SMS-based search. We have been exploring various options in this regard and we hope to resolve this issue in the future.

[On Entrepreneurship]

What was your trigger to startup?
Awe-inspiring growth of mobile subscribers in the Indian market. This has led to a lot of innovation in the Indian markets – innovative operating models, innovative services, and innovative products.

From search perspective, higher penetration of mobiles makes them the first and, possibly, the only source of information for a large set of users.

In addition, the world-class infrastructure provides mobile-focused companies the ability to develop and fine-tune their products in the Indian market before taking them to other parts of the world.

You come from an enterprise background. What are the challenges you faced [personally] while moving away from cushion-job to starting up?
I spent 8 years with Oracle – 4 in the Bay Area and 4 in Bangalore. During this time, I worked on the core pieces of the Oracle database server and, later, contributed towards building tools related to Business Intelligence and Data Integration domains.

Though I had a “dream team” at Oracle and our contributions were highly appreciated and suitably rewarded, leaving Oracle to start Ziva Software was not a difficult decision.

It is a well-known and well-understood fact that though product-oriented MNCs provide good work environment and good salaries, they are unable to provide as many growth opportunities to people as they climb the corporate ladder.
Therefore, in order to provide oneself with continued opportunities to grow, one needs to work with an Indian product development company. There were not many such companies in 2004/2005 and, therefore, I decided to start Ziva Software. Once that decision was made, it was very easy to decide to develop products for the mobile space: Indian mobile market was already large by then and it was growing (and continues to grow) at a stupendous rate.

What is important to you – a) very successful Ziva in a span of 10 years or b) Ziva being acquired by a big name in, lets say 3 years? In short, how do you define the success of Ziva?
Our primary goal is to build a company where people can have fun while developing innovative and useful products. We want to make an impact on the mobile search market and, over time, on the society itself. Therefore, we place extremely high emphasis on innovation and creativity. If we continue to innovate and create value for all stakeholders, I will consider Ziva to be successful.

I don’t think standalone existence versus merged existence (as part of a larger organization) is a useful metric for defining success.

They are orthogonal issues that depend on circumstances and, therefore, need to be treated as a simple business decision. Having said that, our current suite of products (Zook, Manas, and Peepal) are just the starting point – we are developing some really interesting and high-impact products right now… together with the existing set of products, these should help us make a significant impact on the mobile search market.

Being part of IIMB’s NSRCEL incubation centre, what according to you are the typical benefits?
NSRCEL provides an ideal platform to increase a startup’s visibility. It provides opportunities to meet with well-known people/companies and establish contact with relevant people.

In addition, by taking care of various operational issues (such as office space, bandwidth, uninterrupted power, etc.), NSRCEL makes it easier for the startups to give undivided attention to developing and enhancing their core value proposition. And, of course, it is simply wonderful to get an opportunity to work out of the serene and beautiful IIMB campus.

Do you think that the tech community in India is ready to join startups? Or are they still risk-averse? Tells us more on the challenges you people have faced w.r.t talent acquisition?
The product development tech community in India is slowly understanding the pros and cons about working for MNCs. People are recognizing that human nature, timezone differences, and geographical distances impose constraints on what “India Development Centers” of MNCs can and cannot do. Therefore, the pragmatic and forward-looking people are beginning to realize the benefits of working with Indian startups.

We have not faced any severe challenges regarding attracting talented technical people. On the other hand, rapidly increasing salaries – though an understandable phenomenon – pose a more interesting challenge.

I believe you guys are a first-time entrepreneur. Please share your experience/learning in dealing with VCs.[equity that one should be ready to let go of etc etc]
The VC environment has evolved rapidly in the last couple of years. When we first started to scout for capital, there were hardly any early-stage investors in the Indian market. At that time, a lot of US-based and Europe-based VCs were trying to understand the Indian markets. We, therefore, met with a lot of VCs but never really got engaged with any of them. We were able to raise money from the first VC with whom we held in-depth discussions.

In any case, it was useful to get an opportunity to interact with some of the biggest VC firms in the world. Given our engineering background, the biggest learning was the need to present top-down picture to the investors.

People from the engineering background are typically conservative about the claims they make. Engineers verbalize and acknowledge a “vision” as their goal only after defining an actionable path towards the target. This tendency fails to communicate the real potential of the Engineers-led startup to the investors.

This was a good learning because it helped us understand the need for emphasizing top-down thinking within the company as well as the need for defining “vision” and for setting targets for ourselves. This exercise helped us to refine our thinking; also, once everyone accepted the larger goal/vision, it helped us to push the boundaries, and, therefore, unlock the creativity within the company.

Tips to Entrepreneurs?
If you have been thinking about doing your own startup, this is the perfect time and mobile/Internet industries are the perfect industries! Startups are interesting because they stretch people to the limit – they help you understand what you can and cannot do.

They help you learn a lot – by providing a variety of tasks that need to be handled and by providing the opportunity to meet with people with varied backgrounds. They are a great way to learn about oneself and to provide oneself an opportunity to maximize one’s potential. Most importantly, one should do a startup to have fun and to maximize one’s potential. There are other (and easier) ways to make quick money.

Another comment. A lot of people who want to do a startup are unable to decide whether their ideas are “good enough”. I attended a seminar by Bhupendra Sharma of Erehwon Innovation Consulting and he provided the most succinct characterization: ideas that are based merely on direct (and, therefore, shallow) “observations” are not sufficient for starting a company but ideas that are based on deeper “insights” are worth pursuing.

How do you unwind yourself? Hobbies? Passion?
Spending time with my family, listening to music, visiting new places, and reading are my sources of relaxation. Metaphysics and philosophical thoughts have been close to my heart from the IIT days.

Filed under: Ziva

stay pluGGd.in for our podcast with Ajay.

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