Entrepreneur's Speak : Sharat Potharaju, CEO & Co-founder, Mobstac
About Mobstac: MobStac started with a simple mission: to connect the digital and physical worlds through the use of innovative technology. With worldwide smartphone usage skyrocketing, co-founders Sharat Potharaju and Ravi Pratap realized that they would first need to address the world of mobile in pursuit of this goal. In June 2009, they founded MobStac in order to improve the accessibility and quality of mobile experiences offered by businesses and brands around the world. In these early years focused on helping publishers build adaptive mobile sites that would work seamlessly across multiple devices.
Sharat Potharaju, CEO & Co-founder, Mobstac Sharat is responsible for crafting the overall strategy and execution at MobStac. In 2011 Businessworld ranked him among India’s Hottest Young Entrepreneurs.Prior to founding MobStac, Sharat spent several years working in investment banking at Merrill Lynch in New York.Sharat has a Master’s degree in Engineering Management from Duke University and a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras.
Please tell us how it started and what was the inspiration?
MobStac started with a simple mission - to connect the digital and physical worlds through the use of innovative technology. With worldwide smartphone usage skyrocketing, we realized that we would first need to address the world of mobile in pursuit of this goal. And then, in June 2009, we founded MobStac in order to improve the accessibility and quality of mobile experiences offered by businesses and brands around the world.
Could you please describe the early years and the preparations you undertook before you embarked ?
Prior to Mobstac, I spent over 3 years in investment banking at Merrill Lynch in New York. And it was during those three years that I was bit by the entrepreneurial bug. As a result, I took a break and came back to India to think through a few startup ideas that I had in mind. Since Ravi, my Co-founder at MobStac and I were quite clear about the fact that we wanted to start a product company that builds products that will impact the lives of people across the world, we got on with it quite quickly.
Back then in 2009, access to the internet was not affordable or easy for all, because of the exorbitant prices that laptops and desktops came for. This is one of the primary reasons why PC penetration was quite low in most of the emerging markets such as India. This made us realize that mobile is the only mass medium through which the promise of the Internet can be realized. Therefore in the early years, we focused on helping publishers reach out to their audience by building adaptive mobile sites that would work seamlessly across multiple devices.
What has changed since you started the business between then and now ?
Well, given that mobile is a very volatile market, quite a number of things have changed since we started out with MobStac in 2009. For example, during the early days, we had focused all our efforts on building adaptive mobile websites and apps. However, things changed around early 2014. Apple’s introduction of iBeacon protocol at WWDC 2013, led to a rise in demand for proximity marketing. Looking at the overwhelming interest it garnered and the huge opportunity it presented, we shifted our focus from adaptive mobile websites and apps to the emerging field of proximity-based marketing and analytics as a new way to bridge online and offline experiences.
Today, MobStac helps businesses and brands leverage BLE beacon technology to deliver context-rich experiences to their end users. Whether these are shoppers in brick-and-mortar stores, customers at restaurants or users interacting with your business in a number of other ways, we are excited about the possibilities for enhanced customer engagement with beacons. We’ve seen that all components of these proximity marketing strategies must act in harmony in order to succeed, which is why our product Beaconstacoffers hardware, software and a cloud-based platform to intuitively manage everything in one place.
What are the most important ingredients that make your business successful ?
Persistence is the key to business success. Period.
What are the major success drivers that you believe worked for you ?
Well, I truly believe that it is the team that drives a company to success. And Mobstac has been very lucky with respect to hiring the right talent. Other major success drivers would be taking quick decisions and acting on them. Agreed you might make a few mistakes on the way, but the trick lies in making new mistakes every time and learning from them faster.
What word of advice would you give to young entrepreneurs embarking on the Startup journey?
Well, the one piece of advice that I have is something that most entrepreneurs already know about but it is essentially the most critical part of running a startup - Build products you are passionate about. However, it is equally important to understand that it’s impossible to do everything by yourself. You will need an awesome team by your side in order to overcome all the obstacles that come with running a startup.
Which are the most common mistakes or pitfalls that budding entrepreneurs need to avoid ?
One of the most common mistakes is compromising on the quality of hires. As a startup, it’s difficult to attract the best talent, because most of the candidates wouldn’t have even heard of you. Inspite of being faced against such odds, make sure you hire candidates with the right balance of competence and culture fit as the success of a company truly depends on its employees.
Another common misconception among budding entrepreneurs is that if they build a product, people will come. In reality, this rarely holds true for most startups. No matter what type of business you're running, to make a business work, you need more than just a product or service. A business requires that you go out there to market and build connections with your target clients.
How do you keep ahead of the technology and what are the measures you take to make your business future-proof?
I would not say we are totally 'future-proof' but as a company, we try and keep ourselves up to date with the changing trends in the market. For example, the decision to switch from mobile publishing (which we were quite successful in) to proximity marketing wasn't easy, it was like moving out of our comfort zones but I am glad we did it.
Another aspect here is the constant need to improve on your product. Very few products are so good that they cannot be continually improved upon. This process is often neglected or even abandoned at established companies. At MobStac, we make it a point to constantly ask ourselves how we can take the company’s offering to a whole new level.
How should a new founder start building a team ? Would you like to share your experience?
Building a team for a startup can be quite an uphill task. Some of the questions that a new founder is bound to have include: ‘How do I get people to join a company that no one has heard of?’ and ‘What will make them come back each day?’. The way I see it, recruiting your first few employees is kind of a marketing exercise that you need to think through in detail before you head out. Particularly because it is highly critical for a new founder to leverage media to influence the perception about his/her company.
For example, one of the things that we did at that stage was to create a prototype of the product that we wanted to build. We had actually taken the time to think through what a minimum viable product would look like and built a prototype that could be shown to investors, friends and potential employees. This worked really well for us, because when a person sees something tangible and that they can interact with, it really changes the way they react to your proposition or product.
Another problem that most new founders are faced with is that they, in most cases, don’t have a successful track record or reputation that they could showcase. One of best ways to address this issue is to leverage elements from your background that you think are relevant to your product or company. For example, you could use your academic background or the kind of work that you have previously been involved in or the venture capital funding that you recently raised. Once you have that in place, you could probably get a website running and talk about your product and your vision in your blog. You could even approach media publications like NextBigWhat or YourStory and get them to cover your company. This will help you reach out to potential employees more effectively.
What qualities do you look for in angel investors ?
Following are a few qualities of an ideal angel investor:
Appetite for risk (does the angel understand that startups are not a different class of investments?)
Does the angel understand the concept of product-market fit ? Startups typically go through several iterations before hitting growth hence this is important.