FourthLion Technologies (www.fourthlion.in)

Past life

One sunny morning in February 2013, four people had a hush-hush meeting at Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani’s Koramangala home in Bangalore.

The four—Nilekani, who had headed the government’s Unique Identification Authority of India (Uidai), Naman Pugalia, Viral B. Shah and Shankar Maruwada, all former Uidai executives—were debating whether Nilekani should contest the general election and, if he did, how exactly they would plan his campaign.

The meeting was important for two reasons. The first was the most obvious—Nilekani’s plan to contest on a Congress ticket. The second and lesser-known reason was that the seeds of a new entrepreneurship idea were sown that day.

FourthLion Technologies, founded in September 2013, helps politicians and political parties use data, analytics and technology to manage an election campaign. It also caters to other sectors such as media, consumer goods and retail—mainly through the use of its new polling product, “instaVaani".

Prior to FourthLion, the trio of Maruwada, Pugalia and Shah had one thing in common—the Uidai project. For Maruwada, who also actively invests and mentors start-ups and has previously worked at Procter & Gamble, FourthLion was not the first start-up he had helped build or worked at. Maruwada, now in his 40s, had co-founded Marketics Technologies India Pvt. Ltd, a Bangalore-based marketing analytics firm, in 2007.

Pugalia, 26, had worked as a public policy and government affairs analyst at Google Inc. and had experimented with the concept of bringing together politicians and citizens by organizing Google Hangout chats. Shah, 34, proved to be the perfect person to manage the technology operations of FourthLion. Armed with a PhD in computer science and engineering, Shah has co-created a successful, open-source, programming language called Julia, which has thousands of users globally. For Pugalia and him, FourthLion would be their first attempt at entrepreneurship.

Eureka moment

Viral B. Shah (left) and Naman Pugalia in Mumbai. Photo: Dinesh Parab/Mint
Viral B. Shah (left) and Naman Pugalia in Mumbai. Photo: Dinesh Parab/Mint

This has spawned a new generation of political start-ups in that country. “In the US, political campaigning is a full-fledged industry—there are 9,000-plus professionals registered with the local association. In India, nobody has done this before—certainly not professionals. So rather than slot people in specific roles, we had to start from scratch and with what we had at our disposal," says Maruwada.

The actual Eureka moment came, though, when Nilekani became the company’s first client. “That clearly was an ‘Aha’ moment," says Shah. “When we started putting everything together during the campaign, we started realizing that this could have a life beyond the elections."

Genesis

Even though Nilekani ended up on the losing side by a wide margin, the FourthLion team put together a blueprint that would give the former Infosys CEO his best shot at challenging incumbent politicians and increase his visibility, especially among mobile-friendly, tech-savvy voters.

From making the fullest use of the era of open-source software to building more than two dozen in-house apps and mobile-friendly websites, to creating separate campaigns for online audiences, the team sought to put in place a structure that would potentially benefit future political candidates, as well as voters.

“The idea was to also create a platform that could be used by future generations of candidates," says Shah.

The entire digital campaign was shrouded in secrecy for most of the past 12 months and, initially, was code-named “Project Ajay"—with Ajay being a code name for Nilekani.

The FourthLion team dumped all the data on a “cloud", not using a single physical server for storage. “The reason we used cloud computing for everything was so that we could have high reliability at low cost," says Shah.

Then came “HawkEye"—one of the two dozen in-house smartphone apps and websites that they put together. And “instaVaani".

“The idea for HawkEye came when Nandan one day told us that he wanted to get a feel of the entire constituency (Bangalore South) over the course of two months," says Maruwada.

To build “HawkEye", the campaign team mapped out the entire constituency through multiple reconnaissance trips and built in all the information, from the history of the constituency and voting patterns, to information about all the candidates, and pretty much everything about the electoral districts.

“This would enable you to do a few things immediately—firstly, on a Google Map it would tell you exactly where you are, which polling booth, assembly constituency and jurisdiction you are in," says Pugalia. “Secondly, it will tell you who your local MLA is, how many votes he has received in the past, etc. The idea was to develop a technology that you could use on your tablet while travelling."

Reality check

Their first major reality check happened when Nilekani lost the election in May. “For us, it was not a client who lost the election—it was also a friend," says Maruwada. “We had a bunch of plans on what we would do if he had won—those plans had to be thrown out of the window. It’s never easy to go in full steam, come out on the wrong side and then keep your chin up.

“If Nandan had won, we would’ve got a project in constituency management. That would’ve been a good, continuous project for us," he adds.

The team soon picked itself up and started going after fresh clients; now it gets paid on a project-to-project basis.

Their efforts have paid off—they’re currently working with a new client on a “big project". Maruwada, Shah and Pugalia decline to name the client, citing confidentiality agreements, but say they are exploring opportunities in states like Maharashtra and Haryana, which are getting ready for assembly elections.

“Just because the outcome (with Nilekani) wasn’t favourable, to discount everything that we worked towards and created would be unfair," says Pugalia.

Secret sauce

While in-house technology teams—such as the one at the Bharatiya Janata Party, spearheaded by the likes of Arvind Gupta (who heads the party’s information technology cell overseeing all its digital—Web, social and mobile—properties), and dotcom-era Internet entrepreneur B.G. Mahesh—have helped politicians run digitally savvy campaigns, not too many entrepreneurs have explored ventures in this space.

“Traditionally, if you look at similar models in other countries, the in-house technology team focuses on the preparation of essential data such as voter lists and online presence, whereas typically they use partners such as FourthLion Technologies to provide the software that drives the campaign. Most parties do not have a strong technology team, and where they do, our technology supplements the in-house skills and capabilities. Having a full-time team of the kind that FourthLion has would be expensive," says Shah.

“You’ve seen this abroad, in countries like the US, but we haven’t seen too many ventures in this space in India," says Shah. “So, in that sense, we see ourselves as market leaders.

“Taking all the cues, putting them together and integrating them into a campaign in a short amount of time and then scaling it up is our speciality," he adds.

For now, FourthLion is focusing on getting clients outside the political sphere and exploring other sectors (like media, for instance, where they are providing a platform for data and analytics to add a new dimension to storytelling). “At the end of the day, elections alone are not a steady business model—there are only two-three of them every year," says Shah.

Plan B

“For us, Plan B is to modify Plan A till it works," says Shah.

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