How 4 Kerala youngsters turned 4th time lucky with their app Vibe
The idea of Vibe came about to solve a problem that Pillai pondered over – as someone associated with sales, how do I reach out to someone knowing more about him than his name, etc.
A company with three "successfully failed" projects hits the jackpot with the fourth project and a year later is acquired by a US firm. That is the story of Profoundis Labs, a company started by four friends, all aged 27, in Kerala.
Profoundis' latest offering, Vibe caught the eye of US-based FullContact, a US-based contact management platform for professionals and enterprises, and acquired the startup for an undisclosed amount.
How it began
Getting acquired by a US company was not in the minds of the four co-founders-cum-college mates -- Arjun R Pillai, Chief Executive Officer, Jofin Joseph, Chief Operating Officer, Anoop Thomas Mathew, Chief Technology Officer and Nithin Sam Oomen, Chief of Data Research, when they set out on their entrepreneurial journey.
All the four studied in the College of Engineering, Chengannur. Pillai and Oomen studied electronics and communication while Joseph and Mathew pursed computer science and engineering.
“We bonded over extracurricular activities – college festivals and the like,” says Pillai.
In the college, the quartet indulged in 'side business', says Pillai. What that means is that they explored options to offer tech services. So they successfully built a website, provided servers and did web hosting for clients. The money they earned (though that was not their aim, clarifies Pillai) managed to pay their hostel expenses, food and allowed for 'small' treats.
Pillai, a volunteer with IEEE (pronounced I triple E), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers - the world's largest association of technical professionals, says he tasted success when he along with five friends, including Mathew pitched in with a proposal to host IEEE’s Asia Pacific Student Congress.
To his surprise, of the 13 applications in the final, College of Engineering, Chengannur and National University of Singapore made it. “Since our sponsorship was low, we were allowed to co-host the event with NUS in the first time in its history.”
Pillai co-chaired the event. The 'wild idea' that met with success in a global arena seeded in him the confidence to start up, he says.
In 2010, after their graduation, the four friends took up placement offers. Pillai and Joseph joined Infosys while Mathew and Oomen joined start-ups. A year later, Pillai wanted to start up and touched base with the others. All of them were game and a company was incubated at the Startup Village in Kerala.
“We did not know the basics of how to start a business, registration, et al, but knew we wanted to be friends with data,” says Pillai. Their specialisation is technology-enabled human verified data research platform.
The quartet bootstrapped pooling Rs 30 lakh each and kept up with the 'side business' – doing services and products side by side in India and outside -- Turkey, Middle East and the US. Three of their attempts failed. “We were a young and stupid team who wanted to change the world and we did not have the right arrow in our quiver,” says Pillai.
The team got selected for Microsoft Ventures programme, the first start-up to be selected for it from Kerala. It was here that they found they were working on a product that they thought was 'novel’, only to be told by the programme CEO that around 350 start-ups were attempting the same. “We tweaked it and yet the product did not lead to anything much.”
How Vibe works
When customer sends the start-up an email through its chrome plugin, APIs or other solutions that Profoundis has, the start-up uses it as the starting point. Vibe is a search-based technology that collates data from social networks. It helps sales and recruiting professionals to do their prospect research. The same information is available in a Google search but will require several searches to get all the information which is crunched by Vibe on its app.
The idea got traction around night time on 4 February 2014, says Pillai, the date and time seared in his memory. “We were taken aback when we saw 1500 people on the website, which was quite crappy then. Soon, we found we were being discussed on Twitter.
The founders decided to pivot the data for companies at a fee and provide it gratis to users.
The company began generating revenues in September 2015 – 7x in a year’s time, and decided to go in for an angel round from working professionals in Kerala and the US.
"We reached out to FullContact and we were able to make it a win-win situation for both our customers. When talks of an acquisition came about, Profoundis was game as it offered it a strategic value. With FullContact which can offer scale, reach and has deep pockets, we will be able to reach out to more people,” Pillai hopes.
“As a strategic partner, Profoundis has been instrumental to adding value and increasing the effectiveness of our data solutions for our clients,” said Bart Lorang, co-founder and CEO of FullContact.
“Together we can further accelerate the growth of FullContact as we continue to build the most powerful fully-connected contact management platform for professionals and businesses.”
Pillai says they have now close to 100,000 users for the free version and the B2B version serves 220 companies.
“When acquisition talks were going on, there was a fully term sheet pre-series A committed from investors in Kerala and the US. With this acquisition, we can scale up in a short time. That was interesting for us. It is a good deal,” is all that Pillai is willing to say about the acquisition whose amount is undisclosed.
Pillai and Mathew will head to Denver, Colorado, by the end of the year. “We wanted to be the world’s best contact data management. With FullContact, we want to be the default and invisible interaction – be in address book, on phone.
The reason, Pillai says, Profoundis succeeded was as a team all the four fought with each other in things that mattered and off the conference room, they were buddies. "We all had only aim: To make it a success. Quitting was never an option even when we did not succeed," he says.
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A total of 267 start-ups had applied for the programme launched last September, the company said in a statement.
Going forward, RIL is also looking at creating localised hubs in other cities to create a wide web of entrepreneurship talent.
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