Bangalore: They are called casualpreneurs.
It may be a while before the word finds its way into the Oxford English Dictionary, but that’s what start-up circles call professionals who are seeding new ventures even as they stay on at their day jobs.
Driven by the itch to participate in the growing buzz of entrepreneurship around them, young technology professionals in the city are no longer waiting for that big idea to strike. Instead, they are building web applications, designing products and services for local markets and running webzines that are attracting both customers and investors alike.
“Everywhere there is talk of start-ups, of India being on the move. We want to be a part of this wave of innovation and change,” says Niara Ahmed, a 23-year-old engineer, who teamed up with friends Vikram Chadaga and Swaroop C.H. to design and manufacture Ion, an iPod charger that retails at Rs399 at their company website (www.ion.co.in), which the trio launched in March.
Both Ahmed and Swaroop work in Bangalore; she at NXP Semiconductors and he at Adobe Systems. Chadaga has just moved to Siemens AG’s Michigan office in the US, quitting Robert Bosch’s India software development centre in Bangalore. The three, all engineers who studied in Bangalore, met and became friends while trekking and practising long-distance running.
Elsewhere, at software firm Infosys Technologies Ltd, software engineer Rajiv Renganathan spends 10-hour workdays implementing ‘enterprise resource planning’ solutions for business clients. But once his day gets over, he logs in to moderate user responses on the best shopping deals at dealmaadi.com, a web portal that he launched in May.
Dealmaadi is a phrase that juxtaposes the word ‘deal’ with ‘maadi’, which means “do it” in Kannada. With 100 registered users and over 8,000 hits in just six weeks, Renganathan sees it as an opportunity.
“I’ve always been tooling around building Web applications but this is the first time that I can see commercial potential,” says the software engineer, 27, who ran a website for F1 enthusiasts earlier.
Geek circles are calling it the “after hours” virus, that is spreading fast in office cafeterias, on buses that carry workers to offices and back on the city’s traffic-clogged roads, and at weekend jaunts when coders hang out with peers.
For instance, the idea for Ion was born when Ahmed and her two friends trained together for the Bangalore marathon. They wanted a cheap and reliable charger that would power their iPods without leaving their computers powered on overnight. At Rs2,000 each, they found Apple-branded iPod chargers expensive and were wary of trusting their music collection to cheaper Chinese alternatives.
After the September 2006 marathon, they built a design prototype for the Ion, which powers all devices that charge through a USB port.
The gridlock on the streets of Bangalore, which is the bane of most residents, provided Vipul Kasera with his start-up idea: Commute Easy, an online car-pooling portal, which he launched in earlier this year, has already registered 3,459 users. The website’s popularity has prompted Kasera to expand services to Pune, in the western state of Maharashtra.
Investors who watch the start-up environment closely attribute this burst of entrepreneurial activity to a confluence of several factors.
Rising salaries have helped young engineers build a tidy nest egg that they can use to roll out new ideas.
The average software engineer can expect to earn up to Rs6.5 lakh a year by age 27, according to a March study on the spending patterns of India’s IT professionals by research firm CLSA.
For those employed in more value-added businesses such as chip design, the salaries are much higher at Rs2 lakh a month for engineers of the same experience.
The buoyant job market makes it possible for young engineers to move in and out of jobs, while they test the market potential of new ideas. For instance, India’s top two technology sourcing firms Tata Consultancy Services Ltd and Infosys Technologies are expected to add 25,000 new recruits each by the year-end.
But mostly it is the opportunity for networking that peer groups provide that is driving this innovation boom.
At technology networking groups such as Barcamp Bangalore, Mobile Monday, E-Club and Proto.in, young geeks gather to swap ideas and be fired by the stories of successful entrepreneurs.
“Earlier one’s self esteem was boosted by being employed by a big brand name firm; today young professionals rate each other on what new ideas they can generate. We are at the start of a wave of change in the Indian mindset,” says Bhupendra Sharma, director of Erehwon Consulting, a Bangalore firm that says it helps clients innovate.
Much of the success enjoyed by casualpreneurs can be traced back to the support they receive from their current employers. For instance, 800 posters for Commute Easy that Kasera printed at the launch of the car pool service were paid for by his employers at ThoughtWorks, a global tech consultancy. The firm is also supporting two other start-ups launched by its employees: StockHive.com, an investment-advice portal aimed at small investors, and bumsonthesaddle.com, a business that hawks high-end cycles for offroad cycling enthusiasts, launched by Rohan Kini who also has an offline store that stocks the bikes.
“We offer various levels of support ranging from financial, legal, technical and also leave of absence for employees based on the merits of an idea,” says ThoughtWorks director of innovation Vivek Prahlad. The firm, for instance, runs ‘HackDays’, a forum where employees can pitch their ideas to peers. And if the company decides to sponsor an innovative idea, employees get time off to build their ideas. “It takes a high level of tolerance from an employer if an entrepreneur is to build a business and balance a day job,” says Kasera who has enjoyed leave of absence and help from colleagues at ThoughtWorks.
What motivates these companies to lend support to entrepreneurs is the hope that some of these ideas may become successful businesses or at the least would encourage others to follow suit.
At Infosys, seven years ago, OnMobile, a mobile value-added services start-up founded by its employees was incubated with encouragement from the top brass. Since then, the start-up in which Infosys holds approximately 14% equity has raised successive rounds of venture capital funding.
“Companies sometimes seed start-up ideas by employees to retain talent within an ecosystem or with the idea of integrating innovative ideas into the system at a later date,” says Erehwon’s Sharma.
Infosys says its policy on supporting entrepreneurship is clear cut. “We respect and encourage innovation but we expect employees to respect our IP (intellectual property), not compete with our business and fulfil work commitments,” says T.V. Mohandas Pai, the company’s director of human resources. Pai says employees are free to leave if their start-up interests collide with work.
Such a conflict at work prompted Gaurav Kushwaha to plump for his start-up giving up a full-time job at Amazon.com’s India development centre. With his batch mate from IIT Delhi Nitin Rajput, who was also a colleague at Amazon, Kushwaha had built the social networking website chakpak.com after hours.
As the Bollywood gossip website picked up steam, Kushwaha quit Amazon in mid-2006 to concentrate on building the website, as his employers had a clear policy on the issue. Says the 27-year-old, “I had saved enough to last for about two years and felt that I could take a risk by stepping out.” He has an open offer from his former employers to return to his old job.
But six months after the beta launch, chakpak.com raised money from Erasmic Venture Partners, a seed-stage fund, prompting even Rajput to quit his Amazon job to work full-time at the start-up.
It is not always that casualpreneurs look at start-ups they launch as purely commercial ventures.
Desicritics.com, a popular blog, was founded by Aaman Lamba, an engineer at one of the top IT outsourcing firms in the city. “More than money it is the confidence of knowing that you can build something which impacts society; that is my motivation,” says Lamba.