When Arun Samudrala returned to India from the US in 2009 after quitting his job at Beceem Communications Inc. to build a technology start-up, he realized he would have share his new number with his business contacts and friends.
This was no easy task for Samudrala who had about 4,000 contacts on his phone. He went about emailing most, texting some and even sharing his details on Facebook and Gtalk (now Google+ Hangouts), but still recalls getting irritated and frustrated with the cumbersome task.
Not one to give up easily, Samudrala, who had worked as a mobile communications engineer for over nine years—including four years in his previous start-up, United Mobile Apps Pvt. Ltd—also saw an opportunity in the problem.
In November 2013, along with 31-year-old techie-turned-investment banker Niranjan Rao, whom he had met through a common friend, Samudrala succeeded in building a mobile app to solve this problem. “It is a problem that a lot of people want to have solved, because nobody wants to lose touch with work buddies, friends and loved ones. The only difference is that we did something about it,” said Samudrala who, along with Rao, founded Abhriya Pte Ltd, which is incorporated in Singapore and also has a four-member technology team working out of Bangalore.
The app, currently available (beta testing) for Android phones, was downloaded by 3,500 users in the last seven weeks from over 92 countries across the globe, according to the company. Apart from English, the app is available in six other languages—Korean, Arabic, Portuguese, Japanese, Spanish and Chinese. The iPhone version of 6Degrees will be available on the Apple App Store by the end of March, Rao confirmed.
The app 6Degrees (previously Six°) allows you to change your contact on your friends’ phones by just updating your own phone. It not only makes each “a live contact that recognizes the user’s individuality and identity, but also integrates all your contacts from various social networks such as Facebook,” said Rao.
“Your contact on your own phone now acts as the mother ship for your contact on all your friends’ phones. And if your friends join 6Degrees, your address book becomes a self-updating one,” said Rao.
The app also has a feature which helps you to merge or delete duplicate contacts on your phone. Users can also search contacts’ contacts and share contacts with each other much more easily. This was the reason the founders called it 6Degrees.
“We kinda like the theory of six degrees of separation, which says that any two independent people are separated only by six degrees of contacts between them. We want to help people gain access to all these degrees of contacts right on their phones,” said Samudrala.
“The thing I like about 6Degrees is that the contact list is handset-independent. We change handsets, SIM card, etc., so now I don’t have to worry about keeping track of updating my contacts. Google Contacts does have something similar, but it comes with a lot of irrelevant information, instead of just a relevant inventory of contacts,” said Omkar Joshi, one of the first users of the beta version of 6Degrees, who has made around 70 friends download this app in the last few months.
The app has certain privacy controls. Anyone using the app can see all the names appearing in another user’s contact list, but only the names, not the contact details. In addition, users can block certain contacts from appearing to other users of the app. Users can also block certain people’s access to their directory. Only contacts on the “trust list” will be able to search the user’s directory.
The makers of 6Degrees plan to take the contacts directory search a level further, by partnering with community directories and classified services in order to provide instant search options in the locality of the user. They are also figuring out a way to suggest relevant contacts to users, “be it a common friend, a plumber or a pizza delivery,” by partnering with telecom services providers and local yellow pages.
“6Degrees is a big step not just for the contacts space but the phonebook itself—not only does it solve some genuine, widespread problems, but it also brings your social networks right into your phonebook. It’s cool, it’s nifty and it’s very transformative. I can bet it will create many new opportunities in times to come,” said Sandeep Khanna, chief executive office of Karma-Asia Consulting, a marketing research consultancy in Singapore, and former head of marketing at Nokia Philippines Inc.and LG Electronics Inc., Asia Pacific, in an email statement.
But the journey is yet to smoothen out for Samudrala who still uses his son’s bedroom as a temporary workspace for the technology team that includes three colleagues from his previous start-up.
“The first thing we will do when we get some money is get ourselves office space. We used to work at the dining table before this, but needed a white board and some more privacy, so we moved into my son’s bedroom,” said Samudrala, smiling and pointing to the multi-node graph search algorithm (similar to the Facebook graph search, with each node representing one discoverable person in the shared directory) scribbled on his nine-year-old’s white board.
The company has been “bootstrapped” (capital raised from personal finances or from the operating revenue of the new company, according to Investopedia) since its inception in 2013.
Their first form of external capital came in the form of a grant, in Jan 2014, called the IDM Jump-start and Mentor (i-JAM) programme. The Singapore government grant, which is given to technology start-ups that add value to the fledgling start-up scene in Singapore, comprises a cash grant of S$50,000 (approximately Rs25 lakh) along with institutional support.
The business opportunity is huge. According to research firm GartnerInc., mobile apps would have been downloaded over 268 billion times by the year 2017, generating a cumulative revenue of $77 billion. The world’s largest social networking site Facebook acquired mobile instant messaging app, WhatsApp, for $19 billion recently.
But according to online research firm, Distimo, the odds of hitting the jackpot in the apps business are long. Only 0.01% of the apps on Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play (store) generated more than $1 million in revenue during the fourth quarter of 2012.
Samudrala and his team will have to beat these odds.