Tag Archives: Cognizant

Poverty, collaboration and patience

11 Feb

Ever since I started working on United Prosperity, I have learned that progress in a startup happens in spurts. One is often faced with what seems like an insurmountable problem. You keep trying various things – nothing seems to work. Nobody seems interested in what you are doing or if they are slightly interested they have other priorities. And then one day suddenly someone decides to help and lo and behold, things start moving. The seemingly insurmountable problem now transforms into a doable task which then gets done with relative ease. This has been the consistent pattern with all the big milestones we have had like Cognizant helping us with the software development; UC Berkeley, Hanson Bridgett and OMM helping us with the legal work or HDFC Bank in India agreeing to partner with us.

 

I met Jonathan Lewis, CEO of Microcredit Enterprises a few days back at Davis and it was a great opportunity to bounce ideas and take advice on solving the seemingly insurmountable problems.  ‘It took us 3.5 years to get a bank to start working with us’, he said.  That gave me a perspective of the level of patience needed to overcome these startup obstacles. In our case, we approached a few banks in India and gave an overview of our guarantee in November 2007. However things picked up a little momentum only in May 2008 when we contacted HDFC Bank, India. Since then we have been closely working with them and are at the final stages of finalizing the legal agreement.

 

Another aspect which has struck me since I started working on United Prosperity has been that many of today’s complex problems like poverty or cures to tropical diseases tend to be outside or on the periphery of market forces and players. However, getting the necessary resources to solve complex problems like poverty requires the immense support and collaboration of mainstream market forces and institutions. They have the resources and expertise to solve different parts of the problem. E.g. we would not have come to where we are today without the support of Cognizant in building the software or the various legal teams who have helped us.

 

I got to discuss this with Jonathan Lewis. He was quick to highlight the importance of collaboration. ‘The current financial crisis is going to require an unprecedented level of collaboration’ he said. He is even putting together a forum called the Opportunity Collaboration where people working on poverty alleviation in various capacities can forge new alliances. Check it out.

 

Overall it has made me realize that combating poverty requires immense collaboration, which further requires patience. And for startups dealing with the seemingly insurmountable problems which come up from time to time, the value of collaboration and patience can never be underestimated.

 

And yes, we are all eagerly looking forward to sign the agreement with HDFC Bank in the next few weeks, so that we can launch soon.

The First Break-through

10 Nov

Continued from ‘Just do it’.

 

By the end of July 2007, the idea had grown on me and I started putting together a quick outline of all the things I needed to do. I was working almost 60 hours every week at my job and doing this as a side project was infeasible. My wife, Shubha and I discussed this, and by September, I had quit my job and was working full time on United Prosperity. Within two weeks, Michael Laycock and Suriya Prabha joined the brainstorming and over the next two months we started putting together flow-charts and interface specifications of the system.

 

Around the same time, I met Ashok Parameswaran at Silicon Valley Microfinance Network. He was very keen on ‘doing something for India’ and soon got involved with United Prosperity. We started putting together the business plan and finding law firms to help us with the incorporation.

 

Many of the business and operating philosophies started emerging during this phase. To name a few:

        United Prosperity will be open, transparent and will collaborate with any organization engaged in eradicating poverty.

        We will keep our operating costs low so that the poor can afford our product.  We would do that by:

o   Using a scalable, clean and simple ‘cookie cutter’ business model.

o   Automating transactions to a high degree, to reduce operating costs and minimize errors.

o   Focusing on individual contribution and collaboration with very minimal management roles.  

        We will work with only those partners who charge reasonable interest rates to their borrowers and treat their borrowers fairly and ethically.

 

As I started designing the system, I soon realized the complexities and decided to simplify features to keep the size of the initial release manageable.  I had initially hoped that we might be able to build the system in an ‘open source’ development model with volunteer developers.   But after some time I realized that it may not be possible. I started contacting several large software services companies to see if they might be willing to support United Prosperity as a part of their Corporate Social Responsibility initiative. I was able to reach fairly senior people within these organizations but made little progress for various reasons.

 

A friend of mine, Salil Punalekar emailed me one day. We did our MBA together and he was now working with Cognizant in Europe.  He said that he had heard that I was doing something interesting and he wanted to help. I told him that we are looking for help with the software development and wondered if Cognizant would be willing to help. Salil forwarded my email to the Cognizant President’s office. A senior level team from Cognizant evaluated our business plan and proposal, and within a few weeks we had a team ready to start building the system.

 

This was our first break-through. It was February 2008 now and the next few months we would be busy building the system. More tomorrow and thanks for stopping by.