New Delhi: Six years ago at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani campus, a mecca for technology geeks, two students—web designer Ankit Gupta and coder Neeraj Agarwal—brainstormed the idea of converting Captcha, a challenge-response test used online to determine if the user is human, into a viable advertising platform.

Between attending mechanical engineering classes and taking up freelance projects (designing websites), the duo, who eventually added another co-founder to their team, built a viable tech product during their college years that had digital agencies and venture capitalists chasing their start-up, Innovese Technologies.

Innovese was registered as a company in January 2012, although Gupta and Agarwal informally started the company in 2009. In May 2013, Yo!CAPTCHA—the Captcha advertising platform of the company—was sold off to digital agency Networkplay Media.

Even though today only one of the three co-founders continues to be associated with the product, their journey as student entrepreneurs remains eventful.

The idea to start a Captcha advertising product occurred to Gupta after frequent encounters with the campus website, where 4,000-5,000 students logged in on a regular basis to check their grades. The login required users to solve a Captcha code, giving the user “an interface of at least 5-10 seconds on a given web-page", says Gupta.

Captchas often appear on registration pages of websites asking users to copy jumbled letters on the screen, in order to help distinguish a user from a potential hacker.

“We realized that we could actually use the space as an advertising tool," adds Gupta, who grew up in the city of Jaipur, inspired by stories from Silicon Valley, hoping one day to launch his own technology company.

In 2009, Gupta and Agarwal’s chance encounter led them to eventually work on projects together under Innovese—where they developed websites for a few thousand rupees.

“We soon realized that the scale and money was actually in creating a product than being just a services provider," says 27-year-old Gupta, who simultaneously started developing the idea for Yo!Captcha.

In December 2010, another old friend of Gupta’s, Dhruv Sogani, a mechanical engineering student at BITS Pilani, was roped into conversations about the product.

While Gupta and Agarwal worked on the product side, Sogani helped with business development and marketing.

The first version of Yo!CAPTCHA was developed in January 2011, while the formal launch came the next year. The entrepreneurs scouted for websites that were looking to host the tool. Apart from setting up the product, they lacked marketing muscle and know-how of the advertising industry to get the ads rolling.

“Media is very networking driven industry. You need to know the right people, to get started," adds Gupta.

Between finishing courses and opting for internships, the three remained busy.

While Sogani opted for an internship at a Gurgaon-based consulting company, Gupta was called off to Hyderabad to help with a mid-range start-up, Bravo Lucy, while Agarwal went off to Noida-based IT company Opera Solutions.

However, an opportunity to participate in an Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad accelerator towards the end of 2011 brought the three together again.

In September 2011, Sogani and Agarwal pitched Innovese to start-up experts Anuj Pulstya (now partner at 91 Springboard, a start-up support hub) and Pranay Gupta (91 Springboard), gradually getting hand-picked for the accelerator programme at IIM Ahmedabad in December.

It required the three to spend three months at the campus, which technically meant giving up their internships and possible job opportunities to be with Innovese.

The accelerator finally gave recognition to their idea.

“I was ready to dedicate my early 20s to building this," adds Gupta, who is now a regular speaker at entrepreneurial and leadership events.

Agarwal, however, continued to work with Opera Solutions, sparing a few weekends at the IIM Ahmedabad campus.

Over the next three months, Gupta and Sogani were mentored by industry veterans in the company of venture capital funds such as Canaan Partners, Matrix and Mumbai Angels. They were also given 5 lakh to start the venture.

For Agarwal, IIM meant getting rid of his “engineering" persona to take on a more “professional" avatar. “It was our first attempt at walking and talking business," he adds, recalling his crash course in finance, making pitches and studying profit and loss statements, apart from networking.

Back from the three-month stint that helped create a vision for the company, the two started off in Delhi. Slowly, websites got on board, followed by advertisers.

Websites of media groups such as Jagran, the Times of India and the Hindustan Times used Yo!CAPTCHA to allow readers to leave comments on their articles.

Between 2012 and 2013, Yo!CAPTCHA’s popularity peaked and it crossed a turnover of 50-60 lakh in advertisement revenue.

Investor interest also followed.

In June 2012, a clutch of investors—part of the Mumbai Angel Network—approached Gupta. However, the presence of a third dormant partner—Agarwal—remained a concern.

Agarwal, who had not yet left the company on paper but was inactive in day-to-day operations, left the investors jittery. In the final stages of the term sheet being signed, a dispute between the three partners led investors to back out.

It was a very stressful period, adds Gupta, explaining that there were times when he thought of giving up the venture.

By the end of 2012, it was very clear that Agarwal would not be returning to the venture.

However, good news appeared in the form of a strong order book with advertisers such as Reliance 3G and Proctor and Gamble getting on board. Digital advertising networks such as Networkplay Media, then part of German media group Bertelsmann, became regular marketers of Yo!CAPTCHA.

In May 2013, Networkplay offered to buy Yo!CAPTCHA, from Innovese. The acquisition was completed in June 2013.

“They had the sales team and skills to take the product forward," adds Gupta. Sogani and Gupta were retained in the company as product managers.

Now, more than a year after the acquisition, these college students have turned into serial entrepreneurs, and want to do more than create a technology product.

Sogani quit Networkplay Media a week before Mint met him, to join family-run Knowcross Solutions, another technology company, which was run by his family. “We were done, actually," he adds.

In December 2014, Networkplay got acquired by Delhi-based Internet company Smile Group, promoted by Harish Bahl, who has founded and invested in various e-commerce and digital media companies.

Gupta and Sogani both feel that the product can now take care of itself. Gupta is still with Networkplay, sieving through “ideas". Something in the consumer Internet space, he adds, might interest him.

The boys have taken ample lessons from their venture.

“Managing people was a key part of our business; also, don’t be focused on the money, it will come," explains Gupta.

And “start young", no amount of education can teach you what a start-up can, he adds.

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