Chennai: Four engineering students from VIT University at Katpadi, near Vellore, and one from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi, started ngoFuel last year, more with an eye on getting meaningful work experience than making money.
Nine months later, they are willing to decline job offers from professional firms to ensure that the start-up, which provides information technology (IT) solutions for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at a fraction of the market cost, survives.
“We provide IT, Web, media and related services to NGOs across the country,” says Apurv Agrawal, founder and chief executive of ngoFuel.
Providing solutions: Apurv Agrawal (extreme right) with colleagues.
At least 30 NGOs have registered with ngoFuel since it was founded in September. The company has completed projects for three of them, is working on projects with 11 and signing deals with another five.
These projects are related to designing and setting up websites, with content writing and graphic designing bundled together.
While Agrawal is the Web designer, Saswata Shankar De and Aditi Agarwal are the content writers, and P. Shreyas and Siddhartha M. are photographers and graphic designers.
In addition, De is the chief operations officer, Aditi Agarwal and Siddhartha are directors, and Shreyas is the managing director of the firm.
“We had to take such designations and form a board amongst ourselves to sound professional, thereby dispelling any trust or credibility issues that senior professionals may have with us,” Shreyas says, a little sheepishly.
But the designations have functional value as well. While these five founders interact with NGOs, get their requirements and finalize deals, much of the actual work is done through what they call “crowd sourcing”—or getting a large group of volunteers to contribute and complete projects.
“We have 250 volunteers registered with us, of which 15 are actively involved in projects now,” says Siddhartha. “These volunteers are mostly students spread across colleges and universities. Only three of them are from VIT.”
“Students these days,” adds De, “require a social service certification to complete a degree, or they like to have one by themselves to add value to their resume while applying for jobs or higher studies. Volunteering for us gives them that certification, and also the experience of having worked on a real-life project, as opposed to a college laboratory project.”
NgoFuel is in the process of being registered as a trust, after which it will be able to hand out certificates for voluntary work.
Getting volunteers for work allows the company to offer Web services to NGOs at around 10% of the market cost. “For the first three months, we were providing Web designing services for free. Then we realized that any service given for free will not have any value,” says Shreyas. “So, we found out about market rates in the Web designing industry and started offering our work at 10% of that rate.”
The company has also started offering internships to students. Ritika Gupta, one of its 25 interns, is in marketing—and has just marketed the internship programme to an applicant from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Madras.
“He had applied through an internship connect portal of IIT-Madras, where ngoFuel is registered. He was shortlisted on the basis of his resume and statement of purpose,” Gupta says. “When I interviewed him, he was excited about the work, but wary that it was an unpaid internship. I think I’ve managed to convince him that real experience outweighs a paid internship with no work. That he can do this internship sitting where he is, in front of a computer, helps.”
Students like Gupta will be the company’s “ambassadors” in college once the founding four graduate next year. “We definitely want to keep the company going and be involved with it full time even after we graduate. If monetary considerations require us to take up other jobs, we’ll be at least involved with ngoFuel part time,” says Apurv Agrawal.
With the succession plan in place, the founders are figuring out ways to make the company’s revenue large enough to sustain it as their full-time business.
NgoFuel now makes Rs 5,000 per month as revenue and Rs 3,000 as profit. “Since we are not keen on charging more from NGOs, the idea is to increase volumes,” De says. “We target projects with about 75 NGOs by the end of this year. In due course, if we can sign up about 200 NGOs per year, we’ll be self-sustainable.”
Another option the company is exploring is circular funding, where it offers its services to companies at 70% of market rates, and uses the revenue to fund the NGO part of its business.
“There are 3.3 million registered NGOs in India, of which only 2% have a Web presence,” says Apurv Agrawal. “Even if we assume that only about a million NGOs do any serious work, the market open to us is vast.”
NgoFuel has tied up with some other companies that it may turn to when the assignment in hand is larger or more complicated than it can handle. “For instance, a Chennai-based company once wanted us to appoint someone in their premises to maintain their website. Since we don’t have full-time employees like that, we directed them to Hosticia, a Web hosting company that we have a tie-up with to host the websites that we design,” Apurv Agrawal says. “Morvo Corp., a Web designing company, is another tie-up we have that we haven’t had a chance to put to use yet.”
The four have started viewing ngoFuel as more than just a Web services company catering to NGOs. “We really wish to see ngoFuel as the organization that brings youth closer to social work,” De says. “That’s why we have started other initiatives like awareness photography and a fortnightly NGO journal.”
It has also started working on its first photography project for letsgraduate, a microfunding platform for needy students developed by Letmeknow.in, a start-up founded by Sarabjeet Singh. Apurv Agrawal is also a board member in letsgraduate, Singh being his mentor.
“The photographs, to be uploaded on the client’s website, will visually convey the need for funding for education, without actually featuring students who need such funding. It’s a subtle awareness initiative,” Shreyas says.
letsgraduate is also a start-up headed by Oishik Bagchi, a law student in Bangalore. “We student start-ups meet at networking sessions and often find that our businesses can serve and boost each other,” he says.
The group has landed a photography contract for a campaign called Drug Free Punjab from the Armaan Foundation, bundled with Web designing. It has also designed the website for a Bhutanese NGO named Bauwe, working on women’s educational and financial empowerment.
“When our seniors join corporate jobs,” says Shreyas, “they often quit in the first few months because however good the pay is, they get restless about the fact that their work is mundane and will not count for much experience. In other words, the learning is low. We, on the other hand, learn a lot, are exposed to a lot. We’d really like to see ourselves stick to this mode of work and life.”
ngoFuel: Because it empowers NGOs online
Founders:Apurv Agrawal, Saswata Shankar De, Aditi Agarwal, P. Shreyas, Siddhartha M.
Industry : Online media
Product company or services or both: Services
Number of founders and employees: Five founders, 250 registered volunteers of which 15 are active at present, 25 interns
Later Investors: None
Investment to date: None. The company provides Web services through cloud sourcing, so there is no investment involved
The next closest milestone they plan to accomplish: To sign up 75 NGO clients by the end of this year, and 200 by next year
NgoFuel was among the finalists of the NEN First Dot Student Startup Showcase.