Cloudflare TV

💡 Founder Spotlight: Shantanu Singh

Presented by Shantanu Singh, Justina Wong
Originally aired on 

This week is Cloudflare's Founder Spotlight on Cloudflare TV, featuring dozens entrepreneurs from across the tech industry and beyond!

This segment features Shantanu Singh. Shantanu is a social entrepreneur at heart. He is passionate about using technology to solve the problems and inequities faced by the underprivileged sections of society in India.

With his first social entrepreneurship venture, Unnati, Shantanu and his team created a speech-tech enabled, automated 'Job Helpline' to connect blue-collar workers with local job opportunities. Over a year, Unnati's Job Helpline reached more than a crore workers across India and helped more than 4 lakh workers get jobs. Unnati's technology also powered the Job Helpline set up by the State Govt. of Punjab in India. For Unnati, Shantanu and his team won the Govt. of India's 'National Startup Awards' in 2020.

Currently, Shantanu is working on 2 ventures. Flexi Salary, a fintech venture, enables blue-collar workers to withdraw a portion of their accrued salary anytime they run short of money. The 2nd venture, iSchool (currently in development) is a tech platform that will enable the best schools in India to reach and teach children across India, thus ensuring that every child in India has access to high-quality school education.

Before becoming an entrepreneur, Shantanu worked as a Principal at Accenture Strategy, where he worked on management consulting assignments with corporates in India and abroad.

Visit the Founder Spotlight hub to find the rest of these featured conversations — and tune in all week for more!

Founder Spotlight

Transcript (Beta)

Hello, everybody. Welcome to the Founders Week. Today is one of our last days of the Founders Week.

My name is Justina. I'm a part of our Cloudflare technical support team.

I'm stationed in London. Well, today we have with us Shantanu from FlexiCelery. Thank you very much for being a part of our spotlight and thank you for sharing your founders story with us today.

So to start the session, why don't you briefly share with us about your story and tell us about what your startup does?

Sure, Justina.

First, very happy to be here. Thank you so much for having me. So I run a company called nSquared Systems, which is based in Gurgaon in India.

Within nSquared Systems, there are really two startups that we're working on.

One is a fintech venture called FlexiCelery.

Both of these are for-profit social entrepreneurship sort of ventures.

FlexiCelery is a fintech venture that's focused on blue-collar workers in India.

It's really an earned wage access solution where we partner with companies, employers, and we enable their workers, typically workers with low salary levels, we enable these workers to withdraw a portion of their accrued salary anytime they need money.

So this FlexiCelery ensures that workers don't have to struggle in case they run out of money before payday.

The second venture which we're very passionate about is called iSchool.

iSchool is a school tech or an edtech venture. It's currently in development.

With iSchool, we're aiming to make quality school education available, accessible to every child in India really.

Because currently, the best schools are limited by their geographical, physical location.

Whereas on the other hand, there are millions of school children in India who don't have access to good quality schools.

So with iSchool, we're trying to develop a platform that enables schools to really reach and teach children in every city, town, and village in India.

So those are the two FlexiCelery and iSchool that I'm currently working on.

Awesome, awesome.

Thank you. It's great that you have two different projects going on simultaneously.

Can you share with us about how far along are you on the startup adventure for each of them?

Are they around the same pace or is one newer than the other?

Sure. So FlexiCelery has been live for about 70-odd months now. We've got paid customers and users on board.

We're looking to kind of do some more experimentation throughout the unit economics before we start to scale.

We raised a small pre-seed round of funding from a bunch of fairly marquee angels in India last year.

Also got some money invested by a US firm called Goodwater Capital a few months ago.

So FlexiCelery is on the verge of getting to scale up. iSchool, the other one is currently in product development.

But taking a step back, I've been an entrepreneur for about eight-odd years now.

For the first five -six years of my journey, I ran what used to be called Punnati.

Punnati was a tech -enabled employment exchange for blue -collar workers in India where we created a speech-enabled solution that could deliver personalized job recommendations to blue-collar workers over regular phone calls.

So it's really been a fairly long entrepreneurship journey for me.

Five-six years of doing Punnati which we scaled up to a significant level and now recently FlexiCelery and iSchool.

That is amazing. So it's been many years of experience that you're putting into the two new projects as well.

So well, first, congratulations on the investment side of things. So how are your customer base growing since I think the FlexiCelery has been there for a while now and it has been rolled out to users, right?

So we've actually done a partnership with a company called Quest Corp which is the largest staffing firm in India.

They've got about four lakh employees, four lakh workers that are affiliated with them.

So we're currently targeting catering to a small base but the idea is to move out the model, you know, refine the product a bit and then scale it up to this population of four lakh workers.

Simultaneously, we're taking FlexiCelery to a lot of other companies too.

Some of which are on board and some of which are hopefully coming on board over the next couple of months.

That is really cool.

It sounds like it's like totally on the right track of like what everybody wants the startup to be as well and with everyone that is aware of the current situation around the world, we do have pandemic going on and there's a lot of changes in our lifestyle, in our work style, in like how we could handle our progression, right?

So is there any holding up for you in the past year in 2021?

Like what sort of adjustment that you have to have like personally or something you have to make for the company?

Sure. So 2021 has largely been about experimentation, getting customer validation and product development and getting early customers for FlexiCelery.

For most of last year and at least the first half of this year, we were all working remotely which was really okay but once COVID started to recede in India, we felt it was important for at least the founders, the co-founders to get together and work.

We felt it really helps with when you're doing brainstorming, crafting new ideas, designing new experiments but really one beneficial change that's happened is because everybody's moved to Zoom meetings and Google meetings.

From a sales and business development perspective, that's been great for us because earlier when you would have to go and meet clients in their office in person, we would only be able to do maximum one or two meetings per day.

There would be a lot of time that would get spent in commuting, waiting for the client but now with online meetings like this, we're easily able to do four to five business development meetings every day which has been a very positive change for us.

That is so true. I could totally relate like imagine if we have to meet in person to do this segment together, either one of us has to fly for 10 hours before we get to meet so well I guess that is a positive change in 2021.

In fact, I was discussing this with one of my co-founders just the other day.

I used to be with Accenture before and we would fly to wherever the client was either within India or places like London or New York or South Africa.

I wonder if that's going to happen anymore even after things open up. It's true because I think with the technology advancement over the past year, it makes a lot of the well I mean brainstorming is always better to do in person but like there's more tools that allow us to do a virtual whiteboarding as well so I guess we're just all adjusting to the new flow of how we could do things.

But now that you bring up your co -founders, you actually open up the next questions I want to ask about like can you tell us about the story of your co -founders?

How do you start with your ideas like how do you come together and meet each other?

So it's a team of three co-founders. This is Ravi, Ashutosh and me.

Ravi and I have actually been friends from school. We've known each other for 30 years now which is great because we can fight, we can argue which we often do but there's a lot of trust in each other and mutual confidence and respect.

Ashutosh who's a tech lead joined us for full-stack developer nearly six-seven years ago when we were building out our first venture.

He joined us straight out of college but we were greatly impressed with his ability to develop great products and really to continually learn and develop his skills.

So over time, he kind of scaled up and elevated himself to becoming a co-founder.

But between the three of us, we seem to have this bent towards social entrepreneurship ventures.

So most of the products that we develop, the concepts and the ideas that we pursue seem to have a social entrepreneurship angle to them.

So how or I can't really ask who had the idea of like creating these startups?

How did you form the idea like when the three of us were talking or like how did the story came in life?

That's interesting. So for a first venture, what happened was that I had a maid working with me in my house and she'd been with us for the last five-six years and then she was pregnant.

So she had quit for a few months and I was looking for house help and I would look from my apartment's window and there was a as often happens in places like Gurgaon in India, right across the road there was this slum where informal sector workers used to stay and I wondered, here I've got this job opportunity for a person, I'm looking for a housemaid and there on the other side, there are so many people who might be looking for jobs but there's really no way for us to connect and that is where the first venture which was called Kumriti was born out of.

So we ended up creating the speech enabled solution that would deliver job recommendations to blue-collar informal sector workers over regular phone calls.

While we were doing that, we also we interacted with a lot of informal sector workers.

In fact, the first office that we'd set up was in a slum so that we could interact with informal sector workers and really find out what their challenges were and there we noticed that a lot of the workers would run short of money before payday.

So by the 15th, typically in India payday is between the 1st or the 7th of the month.

What we saw was that for a lot of these workers who are typically at low salary levels, they tend to run out of money by the 20th of the month and then for the last 10-15 days, they've really got to scrounge or borrow money from others or go to the local money lender who can charge exorbitant interest rates.

So with flexi salary, that's the solution, that's the problem that we're trying to fix.

So it's really been a combination of our own personal experiences and the problems that we felt and then other problems that we saw while we were in the market and talking to prospective customers.

I see. Would you mind sharing a little bit more about like the, I think because I am not from the Indian background so like when I used to be in North America, there are companies that are paying weekly or paying bi-weekly whereas right now I'm in Europe, we're paying monthly.

How was that in India? So for our audience to understand a bit better about what kind of scale are we looking at when we're talking about paycheck to paycheck?

Sure. So India is a monthly cycle. Everybody gets paid between the 7th of the month for white-collar workers like us, typically salaries would come in on the 1st.

For blue-collar workers and formal sector workers, salaries typically get deposited between 7th or 10th of the month.

Now what tends to happen is and about 90% or 80% at least of India's workforce is really in the informal sector, salary levels are low.

So with that population, we found that and a lot of them are migrant workers, they move from their villages to the towns of the cities in search of jobs.

So what tends to happen is when their salary comes by the 7th or the 10th of month, about 50% of the salary gets sent back home to their family who's typically in the village.

So that's 50% of the salary that gets expanded right away, which is why by the 20th, 25th of the month, a lot of these workers start running short of money.

I see, I see. And just to give myself an idea as well, would the rent be paid on a monthly basis as well?

Yes, that's right, that's right. I see, I see.

Yeah, I guess it's similar to what I used to have in Hong Kong, like where like people are chasing like all the utility bills by the month.

So like towards the end, before your next paycheck come in, you have to be really careful and not to overspend so you could.

Yeah, you know, for folks like us who have credit cards, even if you're facing a cash crunch towards the end of the month, you can use your credit card and get over that crunch.

But for people who don't have access to credit cards or don't have access to formal credit, that can be a significant problem that they face.

So now with FlexiSalary, essentially what we enable them to do is every day that they work, we've given them a salary wallet, which is an Android app.

So every day when the worker works, the day's salary gets loaded into his salary wallet app right away.

And therefore, as the worker works through the month, his earnings now accumulate in his own salary wallet.

And therefore, instead of waiting for payday to get paid, you can just withdraw a portion of your recruit salary anytime that you like.

I see, I see. That sounds like a very cool idea to help with the issue.

And now back to about the work culture of your startup. Like, can you tell us a bit more about how is the work culture like there?

Like, yeah, how does it work for all of you outside of the co-founders group as well?

I think, as I was saying, probably flows from the co -founders that there's been a strong, I don't know why, there's been a strong bend towards social entrepreneurship.

And that's kind of trickled down to the team, where it's sort of a mission driven culture, they were trying to make some changes and deliver value to underprivileged sections of society in India, in apart from pursuing the regular business goals of generating revenues and profits.

So that's kind of become a defining feature of our team and our culture.

For example, as I was saying, when we were starting Pugniti, we felt the need to understand what life was like for informal sector workers, what were their challenges?

You know, what were the problems that they faced?

So we set up for Pugniti's first office in a slum and my co -founders and I literally worked out of a 15 feet by 15 feet tin shed for the first four or five months, just so we could spend 8-10 hours every day living among these informal sector blue collar workers to find out, to interact with them, to speak with them and to generate deep customer insights.

So I think that is kind of ingrained in our work culture here and that's special, that's something that we're very proud about.

That's really good, it sounds like you're really getting into understanding the user experience as well, because you have to be indulged yourself into their experience in order to find the best thing for them.

Because unlike many other startups, we're not really solving a problem that we face ourselves with for a different segment of population and therefore it's important to really get to understand our target customer, our target user, because we can't assume that their needs are similar to what my needs would be.

Totally, totally and now that you have been starting a few startups now and now that you have been in this position for a few years, like you said it's been five, six years, so if we can send you back to five years ago and talk to your older self, is there a version of yourself from the first year that you would change or is there something you would tell them?

I think if I had that opportunity, Justina, there is just so much that I would love to share.

First, I was a management consultant for seven, eight odd years, worked as a sales manager, brand manager before that, but what I would tell myself right when I was starting up would be to forget a lot of what I'd learned as a management consultant doing strategy and consulting projects for large companies, most of those things don't apply when a startup and I didn't know that, I had to do a lot of unlearning really and discover how to build products, how to run a startup.

So first would be that, second would be to, I would advise myself to study the lean startup methodology and really start adopting that early on, be lean, do rapid testing, do experimentations, get customer validation.

I think that's super critical for every founder to know about. Third, validate, validate, validate with customers, talk to investors, get feedback, but really at the end of the day, you've got to do what you and your team feels strongly about because as entrepreneurs, as founders, we talk to a lot of people and we often get differing pieces of advice and guidance.

So at the end of the day, you've got to listen to everybody, your customers, your investors, all the other stakeholders, but ultimately take a judgment call on what feels right for you, your team and your company.

Importantly, conserve cash, cash is king, cash is central to a startup's life and it's for a founder having cash in the bank is really keeps you sane.

So that's super important. Lastly, I would advise my younger self and all people who are thinking of starting up or starting up now is to forget about all the brouhaha and all the glamour around fundraising and all of those things that get talked about in the media.

I would advise myself and everybody to get to the brass tacks, think first principles, focus on creating a strong business because if you get the unit economics, the business model and all of those basics right, all the good things automatically follow.

That's a great advice.

I think we might just have brainstorm a new flexi wallet for startup so they can keep track of the cash flow as well and make sure they don't run out of money before the end of the month as well.

So you did share with us a little bit about your background that you were a consultant for a few years before you become like where you are today.

So can you share with us even more about your background, like is your upbringing, is there certain parts of like your past that bring you where you are today or help you to be successful at what you're doing right now?

Sure, so I was born and brought up, spent my childhood in a small town called Jimshedpur in India where my father used to work.

I had a lovely childhood, great friends in school.

Ravi, my co -founder now is one of them. Was always decent in studies, physics was my favorite subject going up.

At one point in time, I wanted to become a theoretical physicist but really a lot of my time was spent on the volleyball and basketball courts in school or doodling or playing the guitar.

I did after school, I did electronics and communications engineering.

Wait, those are all very different components.

Yeah, let me actually build on that and then I went on to do my MBA from XLRI Jimshedpur which is one of the Ivy League sort of business schools in India.

Did sales and brand management at ITC which is a large consumer goods company here.

Then spent several years at Accenture strategy doing strategy and growth consulting projects but right when I was on the brink of making partner, the startup bug bit and I kind of jumped off the cliff, took off my corporate coat and tie and started up.

But really, if I kind of look within, I've always felt that there were two sides to me.

One was the analytical problem solver and there was this other side that is more creative, that is more artistic.

I play the guitar, I paint and in my corporate job as a management consultant especially, it was all about analysis, problem solving, etc.

So the artistic creative side of me was maybe getting a little suppressed and that created dissonance and that created the desire to really start up and start creating something of my own.

So as an entrepreneur now, I feel that entrepreneurship is one path that gives you the right mix and the right balance of analysis, problem solving, all those hard skills but also creation, creating something new, doing something artistic.

So one day I'm doing web design, the other day I'm working out numbers on excel sheets.

So it's the perfect balance for me which works great. I think a lot of your experience are more on the business focus from going to business school and a lot of consultative work experience as well.

So are you also on, well you did mention web design, so you're also the programmer, do you code for your own app?

What about that side of your background?

I don't code. Ashutosh, our tech lead, handles most of the coding and the hardcore engineering and architecture but I do the product design and I also handle the UI and the UX.

So I have no formal training in really web designing those sort of things but I taught myself.

So I learned HTML, CSS, all of that.

Oh wow, how was the first experience like when you first start touching the HTML and first start getting into UX design and like what was the experience like?

It was, you know, as at Accenture as a management consultant, I used to do a lot of PowerPoint.

So the first designs that I started creating for our first product was, I was just doing designing on PowerPoint because that's what I was comfortable with.

But then I started, there are enough and more online resources that are available.

So I just started doing research and teaching myself and it's all fairly easy when once you, you know, if you're willing to get your hands dirty.

So it didn't take me too much time. I picked up HTML, CSS and now I'm fairly comfortable with all of that.

That is good. I think it's good for us to know as well you don't need to be a super tech focused person in order to create your own startup which is like different apps going on, right?

So like that is a very good message for our future startup dreamer like who wants to start their own.

So thank you.

Thank you for that. So we do have like a very short five minutes left in our session.

It's time flies. So before I let you go, I do have like two more questions for you.

One is like what are the things that you would like to share with our audience here today?

Like is there other advice that you want to give them?

Like anything you want to share with them so they could focus for their future as well?

Sure. Just you know, just given the state of the world these days, I would request everybody to stay safe and stay home as much as possible of course.

But really, if you're thinking of starting up, do read about the Lean Startup Methodology by Eric Rice and Steve Blank.

When I started up, I really didn't know about Lean Startup and I made several mistakes which could have been avoided if I knew about this way of the Lean way of building a startup.

So for everybody who's thinking about entrepreneurship, looking to start up or just started up, I think that's super critical to get to know about Lean Startup, product validation, customer validation, all of that.

And would you say having the customer validation was one of the biggest challenge and learning you have over the past few years?

Or what are some of the biggest challenge that you want to share with us as well?

I think right when we start up, you know, as I was saying earlier, the assumption was that running a startup or building a startup would be just like working in a large company, but it's not.

And I think in the early days, we made several mistakes which can just eat up time and cash.

So now, we're a lot more focused and cognizant about ensuring that we track what assumptions we're making in our business plans, ensuring that even before we write a single line of code, we've got the basics worked out, we have customer validation, we've met enough prospective customers, we know what the need is, we know that there is a willingness to pay.

So I believe that if you've got the right problem, then that is kind of half the battle done.

Most of the challenges with startups is around, you know, when you end up building something that nobody's looking for, it seems like a great idea.

But either the customer need is not there, or it's not enough of a felt need, or there's no willingness to pay.

So as long as you get those basics right, the rest is fairly easy, or as easy as a startup can possibly be.

Thank you, thank you. And I like the advice of like logging your own steps as well, because sometimes we tend to forget, like we forgot like what we did wrong already.

If we are logging it on the way, like we can always revisit back into our own history, and make sure we don't commit the same mistakes again, right?

In fact, every so often, pretty much every month or so, my co-founders and I get together and kind of do a review.

What have we learned? What did we do wrong?

What are the learnings? Just to make sure that, you know, we're not repeating the same mistakes again.

Thank you, for sure. And I have one last question, not exactly startup related, but we'd like to end the session with a little bit of fun things, like that we want to learn from you.

Do you have a pop culture recommendation for our audience?

Like it could be a book, a movie, a video game? So my wife and I love watching sci-fi or fantasy sort of, you know, shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime.

So we love Supernatural, we love Grimm. These days we're watching Fringe, so if you're into sci-fi sort of stuff, check it out.

It's a fairly good show to binge watch.

On the music side, I mostly into, you know, I used to play the guitar, mostly classic rock, a little bit of metal.

So Carry On My Wayward Son, which was also the theme song for Supernatural, is really one of my favorite songs.

Among the newer bands, I'm quite enjoying Imagine Dragons. So if you haven't heard them, give them a listen.

I definitely haven't heard of them. So let me go like Google that.

There's another one which you probably would not have heard of.

I have a four-year-old daughter. So, you know, these days I'm also watching shows on YouTube about this teen superhero called Ladybug.

It's a French superhero, my daughter loves her.

So, you know, a lot of time is spent watching Ladybug and Cat Noir on YouTube.

Awesome, awesome. Well, you're sharing your recommendation for people of different age groups, so I'm sure everybody would find something that they could Google a bit later and like to start watching like in this weekend.

Well, we have a tiny 20 seconds left.

I just want to use this time to thank you for joining us today and thank you for sharing your experience and all the advice that you have for our audience.

We would love to hear more of your future startup story. Please come join us again and thank you very much for everybody who has joined us in the call today.

I hope you all have a great weekend. Please stay safe.

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