Andrew: Hey, they’re freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy, where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses. Joining me is a guy who started out in a small mining town in India with no running water, ended up with a job at a major American company, and still wasn’t satisfied, said, I’ve gotta start my own business.
And he did, and it didn’t go very well but, um, he went back to India and decided to get back in the game and backed to other companies as a venture capitalist, and then started another company that did do well and actually sold to Oracle. And now is back with yet another company. And I invited him here to talk about that whole process.
And we’ll spend a lot of time focusing on his latest company, which is called Quolum. And what Quolum does is they allow, you know, When you haven’t checked your credit card bill for months and you go back in and you look and you say, Hey, you know, what, why do we suddenly have this subs two subscription services for Disney plus, oh, my wife and maybe my kids signed up and they didn’t know that they both did it.
And we could share an account. Right? Well, businesses have that, but multiplied, multiplied by, uh, the number of people in the businesses and also multiplied by the amount of money that’s spent. And so Cole says we can help you solve that. And that’s his latest business. And before that, he ran a company called Bitzer, which does mobile security.
And truthfully, when I saw that, I said boring, there’s no way we could make this. And then I talked to him for about 40 minutes before we got started. And I realized, no, this guy’s good. And this business is interesting. And we’re gonna talk about all of it. Thanks to two phenomenal sponsors. The first, if you’re looking to hire developers, I’ve told you already, and you’ve been going there.
So I don’t know why they keep paying me, but you already know, go to lemon.io/mixer G. And the second, if you are trying to invest in a company or maybe pull a group of people together to invest in a company, I’m gonna tell you how von.ai is the organization you should be working with. They’re gonna turn you into an angel investor and then some, but first into CA it’s good to have you on here.
Thanks for being here with me.
Indus: Thank you, Andrew. That was a fantastic intro. Happy to be here.
Andrew: Thanks. How much did you sell Bitzer for, to Oracle?
Indus: Uh, we sold it to close to, uh, $50 million to Oracle.
Andrew: Wow. How much of that do you end up with for all that hard work?
Indus: Well, we were three founders, so we divided, uh, close to 25% of the proceedings amongst each.
Andrew: Okay. So life changing situation here,
Indus: Definitely life’s changing situation, but more than that, I kept a promise with my wife saying, Hey, gonna start this. I’m sure it’s gonna turn out to be okay. And she said, you’re effing out of your mind, but she let me do it. But at the end of the day, when it turned out to be okay, she be, she became happy.
Andrew: you and I chatted a few days ago. And one of the things you said to me was my wife no longer worries about failure because of Bitzer. I worried about failure for most of my life. At some point recently, I just got rid of that thought, which now, now that I say it out loud, I worry that I don’t worry about failure anymore.
But when you did, did you stay up nights thinking what if this doesn’t work? How did that manifest itself in you and your wife?
Indus: I think it’s a, as an entrepreneur, it’s a constant nagging feeling. It’s like, You know, uh, what’s a great analogy. So you are like, uh, a person who has gone on war, and there’s a good chance that you’ll never come back and starting a business is nothing different than that. You know, you can fail or you can die.
You’ll burn out of all your savings. Your college future is gonna jeopardize because you don’t have money left. So I worried about it every day until Bitzer got done. I had several failures, nobody knows, you know, she knows it, but now I don’t, I have a totally different perspective on how to build a business.
Andrew: let’s go back and understand how you did this. I’d like to just go a little bit back, um, further than I think most entrepreneur interviews would, would go, but this small mining town, when you say no water, how would you shower? How did you drink as a kid?
Indus: Surprisingly all the homes had a faucet, but no running water. The water would be rationed. It would show up magically at odd hours sometimes like at eight in the morning, sometimes at 6:00 PM in the evening, because you know, the supply is not designed to be fed on a 24 running hour basis. So let’s say I want have a shower that you know, winter, and I would say mom, shower.
Mom’s gonna say, okay, let me check. Okay. No water. All right. So let me see which one has a storage. So she’ll look for some buckets in the bathroom. All right. Two bucket full of water. Winter. Mom’s gonna take some water, take a big pot heat up while I’m waiting. This is like 90. So no phones to huddle around right.
Ups waiting. Water warms up. Mom comes back. Puts in the bucket, mixes it with enough of a cold water just to smoothen the temperature. And that’s my limited supply. You know, if I waste it, my face is gonna be lathered and left behind, or I finish it up, contrast that with today. My kids just said, dad, going for shower.
All right, go
Andrew: Yeah. And both kids could take a shower at the same time and not worry about running outta hot water. what town was this? Where was it in India?
Indus: it’s a small town called dun bath. D H a N B a D. It’s a mining town. You know, if you have lived closer to cos where mean a called mine in, even in West Virginia, United States, very similar, you know, dump trucks, you know, taking, you know, truck full of coal, passing by debris back and forth sand to fill up the mines, you know, passing by very vividly.
Andrew: The first or one of the first entrepreneurs that you saw was the knife sharpening. Man, when I lived in Argentina, we would see someone like that. He would come by with this bike, like thing he would pedal and the pedal would move the sharpener and then he would take your knife and he would put it over that thing and it would get sharpened and you’d pay him and it, it looked beautiful.
Um, What was like, what was your impression of the knife? Sharpening guy?
Indus: Very very well said. So the reason I would stop at the knife sharpening guys is exactly because of that. So while sharpening sparks would come out and, you know, it’s like a mini fireworks, I would observe every day coming back from school and, and watching that, I would wonder why would somebody take that job?
Isn’t that grueling? Will he not, you know, chop Mame, his limbs or fingers, and then, uh, a random conversation. He said, no, I do this on my own. Nobody’s forcing me to do I have a family. I have a kid. This is my life. This is my business. And that’s when it kind of got ingrained in me that, Hey, this is a business of one.
Somebody is doing it to make his living fast forward. It’s a very vivid memory of that conversation, not exact words, but I remember standing in front talking to him and, and recognizing this fact.
Andrew: You got a job at semantic come to the us, right? You do well, there you’re there for like four years. Why, what was it that made you wanna become an entrepreneur? What’s the idea that set you off on this path?
Indus: I think two or three things happened as layers. So I’m an in, I’m an engineer, computer science, professional, designed to write code. What happened at Symantec? I got this transition into marketing and there, I found that, Hey, it’s not just the code that you write. It is the package. It’s the messaging. It’s the product that matters to the customers.
And this was 2007, 2008 days. Social media was being born. So Facebook came out, Twitter came out and a random experience at Walmart about returning something that I bought. I thought, Hey, why doesn’t Walmart have a social media presence where I could just tweet out, say, I’m not happy with the product. Can you take it back?
Instead of me sending a support ticket or calling in hours? So that got an idea in me saying, Hey, let’s start a business. Left Symantec started. Theit absolutely wrong time to start a brand new business a month after I left Symantec bears collapsed. If you remember 2007, 2008 housing bubble that happened theit is, uh, just was a dream that could not come to fruition.
I eight or nine months ran out of guts, ran out of money, you know, got a one way ticket. Went back to India.
Andrew: What was the before and after on your bank account.
Indus: I had around 88 or 90,000 ish, um, in my bank account, roughly around a hundred K before I started, I had two kids. Me and my wife, family of four living in an apartment, um, we roughly burned through 70, 80% of the savings. So I had probably 10,000 or $12,000 left when I decided, oh man, this is not working out.
We have to figure out a way and absolutely scary. Last few months, there was also a situation where not related to the money, but related to the, the stress, our electricity was turned off in our apartment for like 48 hours.
Andrew: okay. And so now no electricity in the house business isn’t doing well. It all adds to the sense of nothing’s going right for. And so you then go back to India. I’m guessing to cut back on costs to get a little bit more stability for your family before you decide what to do next. Am I right?
Indus: That’s right. There’s a small thing that happened in between. So as I was going through this downturn in my own personal life, I was trying to figure out how to raise money, how to get some more money to survive. So I got connected to a, a wonderful human being and he introduced me to a guy called D GTA.
He was running another company called CZU and he said, of course we are not heavily funded. He, he had raised a small amount of money, like a million dollars, but I can give you a soft landing so I can give you a job, but you gotta move to India. Start a, you know, back office for us like an engineering center, and then we’ll figure out what happens.
So while I ran out of money, I moved to India. I have a soft landing. I work for CSU for six months. Unfortunately, CSU also ran through the same troubles that was folded pretty quickly. And then. The, the good part is I was in India. So I had some plan B worst case. I go back to my parents and dun bath and live with them.
But you know, one thing after the other and then Morpheus was born. That was the, the lemon that turned into lemonade. That was an amazing journey.
Andrew: Dude, that’s the thing that I don’t get. Like here you are a guy whose company failed and then you went for, to work at another company and that failed. And your next step is to say, you know, I think I’m going to create the why Combinator of India. I think I’m going to be the guy who like Paul Graham teaches guides and fosters the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Where do you get off doing that? How did you have the self confidence to do it? And then what’s the credibility that allowed you to do it?
Indus: Zero creds, absolutely agree. But that failure, that period of last six to eight months taught me something. You are at zero. You have nothing. I have seen a failure. I see how startups work. I see how startups fail. And back then 2008, 2009, India was at a very nascent startup ecosystem. There was no venture fund that was putting Mar money in early stage.
So I had seen that story of success in Silicon valley, where small companies were getting funded. Airbnb was a story that came out and of course popular now, uh, just into TV. Again, these are why common area startups. And I thought, Hey, there is an opportunity to do something. I had two choices, go take up a job or start something of my own.
I had zero guts to start another startup, like a tech startup, because, you know, I likely I’m not doing it anymore, but this whole, whole notion of, you know, the Y Combinator clone. Was a spark that just could not be extinguished in my brain and then got connected to a couple of other people who said, yes, this is a great idea.
Let’s work together. So found two co-founders and me zero money in our bank account. And then we prepared a deck of 15 slider and went out to raise money for our own first quarter million fund for Morpheus. That was the Y Combinator in India. So to your question, I don’t have a pedigree as a VC, not a successful entrepreneur in the eyes of the ecosystem, but let’s just bloody do it.
That was the idea.
Andrew: And where’d you get the money who backed you on this?
Indus: We luckily found five limited partners. As I now know that is what is called and that they said, oh, this is interesting. You guys are going to put $12,000 in 25 startups. that sounds amazing. India is at an early stage of startup. Boom. Great idea. Here is $15,000. Here is $20,000. Here is $40,000 and we collaborate together that first fund and we started investing money.
Uh, we got lucky with our second investment, a company called Proctor two young boys, fresh out of college, held a dream of doing something in the medical practice space. We bump into each other at a random event and rest his history. So Proctor raises money from Sequoia and we were like an unknown kid.
The moment the Sequoia endorsement happens, we become an, we, we become basically celebrities overnight. and you not believe in six months I had probably 25 media stories. Sometimes on page three, my mug was gonna show up. Sometimes my guest post would show up absolute stardom from no one to someone who’s funding startups.
Andrew: But I’m, I’m not following. Where did you get the money? Who, who was it or what type of person would say yes, I wanna do it. Is it, is it another investor? Is it someone who does angel investments usually? Is it a successful startup entrepreneur who wanted more people like him.
Indus: So the five individuals were successful operators and executives in other large businesses who have made, you know, a few million dollars here and there. And they saw this opportunity that we were bringing to create something new and think of them as angels in us. They were not investors.
Andrew: Okay. All right. And then you’re not doing it anymore. I saw the article that said that you left, you told me, look, I realize I’m not cut out for VC. What was it about the VC world that, that you weren’t cut out for?
Indus: I think one thing that I, I realized I’m an operator, I’m a builder at heart. I’m an engineer. So when I went into the other side, not knowing what I was getting into, um, I hate to say this, but I feel that the job of VC is take a few calculated bets on other people’s efforts and let them work hard. And then of course you reap the reward after a gestation of five to 10 years, you don’t participate in the building journey.
This is against the conventional wisdom. What we read in the press, it feels like the investors are participating. They are, but on a very limited way, you know, probably have a ringside view, but they’re not in the arena playing the game. And I realize that, Hey, I’m not built out for that. My hairs are absolutely black at that moment and say, Hey, I’m, I’m gonna go, go back and build something.
You know, I have stabilized, my career did this for two years. It’s amazing to work with entrepreneurs, but I’m gonna become one again. And that’s when I quit.
Andrew: by the way, one of the entrepreneurs who you backed, uh, what is his name? Viv. Ravi Shankar. He is the founder of hacker rank who I interviewed. Um, and he not only was backed by you, but eventually Y Combinator got him into their program. Right. So there was like this connection now to this world that you wanted to emulate.
Indus: Yep. Uh, Vivek was one of our very early investments. I very much remember, uh, Viv wake and hurry. The two founders in an apartment in Bangalore and me visiting them and both sitting, um, not a couch they’re sitting on, on a, on a mat on the ground and pouring over a book to figure out how to interview founders or how to interview people, uh, to get them to clear the interviews.
Right. So it was just amazing. And few, we just got lucky because you know, nothing special that we did, you know, India was early, there was a pent up demand for what we created. And then there was a sort of inbound flow of, uh, entrepreneurs that we put money on.
Andrew: It had the hunger and then it also had the cost consciousness and everything else that you expect to go into it. The, the fluency in English that you would expect anyway, hacker Ranka for people who don’t know, it’s a technical assessment and remote interview solution, basically for hiring developers.
All right. I should take a moment now and talk about my first sponsor. It’s a company called VO Bon, and here’s what it does. Imagine if there’s someone like you, who says. I have a few ideas for these companies that need to get backing. I believe in this one type of company, I, or maybe even it’s one specific company that they believe in.
Maybe it’s you imagine you say this, I still see a great company in India. I want to back them, but I don’t wanna be the only person to back them. So you go to Von and you set up a special purpose vehicle. They give you links that you could give to people like me and others, and they work internationally.
So you don’t have to stick with the us. You don’t have to stick with just the us and India. You can go all over, go to the middle east, go to Europe, go wherever you want and say. I found this company. I don’t wanna back on myself because what I’m looking for is not just money, but people who can, they can call on for support.
So you, Andrew, maybe you can chat with them about how they could tell their story while on, um, in, in interviews into the media. And then you go to somebody else and you say, I’d like you to invest because I want you to be able to help them vet their developers and so on. Now, how do you put that thing together?
Well, yeah, you can hire a lawyer and put it together or there are other organizations that’ll do it, but they only work in the us, but we’re seeing that some of the biggest investors now, the ones who are most open with their wallets are at other parts of the world. Like I said, middle east, Europe and so on.
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Thank you. VO bond for sponsoring. So you decide this is not for me. I’m going back into business and then the next business that you start becomes the big powerhouse. Where did you even come up with the idea for this? And I know the idea evolved. What was the first idea and where did you come up with it in us?
Indus: The first idea was, so my co-founder Ali, he thought, Hey, mobile is catching up. Wouldn’t every business need a mobile website kind of obvious. Right? So he started tinkering with that and,
Andrew: maybe now you could say it’s obvious and now it’s not so necessary, but I get it that at the time it was like, no, Steve jobs says I don’t need a, a mobile website. Okay. So this is roughly when, when we’re looking at, uh, the year was, let me see. Roughly 2010, the iPhone had been released about three years before.
Okay. So that’s the idea. How do we build websites for companies that are mobile friendly?
Indus: yeah. 2010 iPhone penetration was up. I think it was the three GS. If I’m not wrong, if a memory’s not failing me, I think iPhone three GS was just announced and people started realizing, oh, iPhone things. Very incredible. And that’s when Ali got an idea who Ali’s a CTO and co-founder of my previous startup.
Hey, we could build a business building mobile websites for other companies and saying, yeah, sounds good. And then soon realized at night’s like too much of our work, people will not buy it. There’s infrastructure to worry about. And then we brainstorm thinking, oh, the bigger problem is, and this came up in a conversation with, uh, with the potential customer that executives that have iPad and iPhones, they are not able to access their internet from their iPhone device because it would not allow it security policies would prohibit it.
And I thought, Hey, that’s an interesting one to solve because you know, people are on the go, they would carry two holsters, one containing Blackberry, and the second containing iPhone, they would only wanna carry one that
Andrew: they wanted it to be the iPhone, not the Blackberry that their company gave them. They want the iPhone that lets them listen to Pandora and all those other things that came with the first versions of the iPhone. Okay.
Indus: Absolutely. And the proverbial executive would go through it. They’d say, Hey, get out of my way. We don’t allow it. So what happens is in fortune 500 companies, they use this thing called a smart card. So it’s like a physical card looks like your identity badge and the smart card enables them to access the corporate intranet.
Think of that as a second factor authentication, which is now very common as in a Google authenticator or, you know, SMS that comes to you. Hey, sign in your, with your code after your using and password. So back then the smart card was a second factor. There’s no slot on the iPhone. There’s no, no gap in the iPad to insert a smart card.
So we basically came up with an idea what if we replicate the smart card as an app on an iPhone. And that was the germination of a larger business that we went after.
Andrew: kind of like athe and now there are a bunch of different tools that do this, that create the code for your two-factor authentication, but you didn’t create your, I guess you didn’t create your own standalone. You somehow piggybacked off the functionality of this smart card that employees needed in order to access their desktop computers.
How did you do that? Did the company that made them allow you to do it?
Indus: If you look at the smart cut is actually very simple product, right? So the smart cut contains a chip, which has a very small memory, probably one K all it does. It contains what’s called insecurity, parlance, a digital certificate, you know, bunch of code that is strung together, and four digit password that you only remember.
Now, when you insert this smart card on your laptop, guess what happens? The, the windows device reads the certificate and prompts you for that code and you type in the code 1, 2, 3, 4, boom, you’re authenticated. And you’re inside the internet. We just took that idea instead of using the smart card, the hardware. Use the app as a smart card. So we will deploy a certificate on a mobile app. You would still remember the password, the certificate would be sent to the servers. It will unlock the internet for you and boom. You have access to your email, your corporate intranet, your PowerPoint presentation, your Wiki, and you know, all sorts of internal documents without violating security policies, which the network guys have enforced.
Andrew: Did, did they need to get permission from their tech department at their companies in order to do this? Or was this the kind of thing that they could just implement on their own?
Indus: They have to get the permission, uh, because the certificates just like. Getting deployed on a physical device or a physical card, the certificates would be deployed on a mobile app. So we would deploy this infrastructure on their, you know, which now in the cloud universe is laughable. It was called DMZ or in the data centers and they would deploy our infrastructure.
And then they would provision the certificate on the mobile phone and hundreds and thousands of employees can seamlessly access their internet, kill the second holster, make the iPhone an iPad work. The happiest would be the board member or the VC who’s carrying his or her iPad saying, oh, why can’t I access your documents?
Because of course he’s on an iPad. So that was a great win for us.
Andrew: So then one of the things that you told me was in the early days, employees would go to, to their it department and say, why do I have to carry a Blackberry? And essentially, let me paraphrase. You said the it department would say, go screw off because it wasn’t in the it’s interest to do this. So yes, you found a solution, but a solution that the end user would want, but he’s, or she’s not making that decision.
It’s the it department that has to be convinced. And they’re not convinced even when their own people come and ask for it. The big question I have is how do you sell somebody who doesn’t feel the problem on a solution? That is for somebody else that maybe, I don’t know, puts their job at risk or makes them feel uneasy.
How do you get someone else to say yes to a solution, to a problem? They don’t have
Indus: I think that the problem was with the people who wanted access, you know, it knew about this problem. So we found our first customer in the second largest company of the world Chevron corporation. And the funny story is my CEO Naim. He saw the, the deputy CIO of Chevron speaking at a conference and he made a joke about his iPad.
Being inaccessible to his own intranet. Although he’s a CIO,
Indus: The, the, the mouthpiece of the it guys talking about what his, it does not do for him. And the talk gets over and name basically rushes and grabs him by the hand saying, I have a solution for you. And that’s how our journey started convinced the people who have the problem and let them take you to their it department saying, oh, look at these guys.
And we were a company of 15 people. Their procurement team would throw the RFP on our face saying you will never get selected. You are not even in business for three years. And we would say, Hey, the board wants it. Your executives want it. Here we are.
Andrew: wait, how much did you raise you? I thought you raised like 150 seed. How do you hire so many people with just 150 seed? Did you raise more than that before you were able to hire them?
Indus: We raised three 50 seed.
Andrew: Okay. And that was enough to hire that many people. Would you say seven people?
Indus: yeah, we were seven people we keep in mind. We were in India in 2010 back then salaries were very low compared to now.
Andrew: yeah, yeah, yeah,
Indus: three founders
Andrew: One of them was in Sunnyvale though. Wasn’t.
Indus: we were based out of Sunnyvale. Um, two of my co-founders, they were in Sunnyvale. I was in India. I was in Bangal. Remember I got one way ticket to India.
Andrew: you hadn’t come back yet. Okay. Got it. So then, so then Chevron says, we want this, that we don’t believe you can do it. You prove to them that you can. When I look at old articles about you, it seems that eventually Chevron technology, what is it called? Ventures ended up backing you. They said, we like this.
We wanna buy first. And then we wanna invest in you. Is that how it worked,
Indus: That’s how it worked. The CIO of Chevron friends with the guy who ran the venture arm of Chevron, probably over a drink. I don’t know that story probably Naim does introduces that, Hey, look at this brand new company solve this problem. And I think Jeff at Chevron reaches out to Naim saying, Hey, I just saw that you are getting onboarded.
A proof of concept has just started. Are you guys raising any money? And Naim of course, you know, always raising money and that’s how our series a happened. So Chevron was the lead. They put in close to 3 million and then couple of other investors came along and we were in business. So from seven to then we went on to 35 employees in the journey.
Andrew: I’m seeing old articles about Bitzer and then I see the old, like the iPad, the way it used to look. And as I’m reading these old articles, I’m seeing the iPad and the technology, the hardware that you’re plugging into improve it. It was a cool ride. Then I see an article in tech crunch from 2013, about how Oracle quietly acquires enterprise security starter startup Bitzer mobile.
Why did you sell to Oracle? Why did you sell it all?
Indus: think two or three things happen. And this is what, uh, you know, as an entrepreneur, a, a daily conflict goes in, in our mind. So 2013 we were doing good, but we are not doing awesome as a business. You know, we had, we built a product that was designed for only super large companies. And guess how many of them exist?
Probably 500 of them, right. Fortune $500 billion in revenue. So in hindsight, It, it felt like we made a mistake, but you know, it was the progression you built for a cohort. Then you go to the next one. So 2013, we are doing great. So we got Chevron as a customer. I didn’t tell you that. Guess who we got the second customer,
Andrew: Ooh. I can’t even find it in my articles who
Indus: Exxon mobile
Andrew: oh, okay. The competitor that is buying Chevron, a company that Chevron uses and invested in. Okay. That’s that means it’s gotta be good.
Indus: Yeah. So we went to Exxon Mobil with the same thing. Hey, don’t you guys have this problem where executives are not able to access the intranet, say how do you know about it? And we basically, you know, make made Exxon as a customer. So long story short, we could not get. More than a dozen or a handful customer.
And the customers that we had were still big name companies like UBS bank Chevron, Exxon China, Eastern airlines, cab, Gemini. These are all half a million to a million dollar ARR accounts, but we are not able to go beyond a few, you know, million dollars of revenue. And 2013 are growth stalled. We are trying to figure out what to do next.
And we had to raise the next round or figure out, you know, as a company. So we had partnered, uh, uh, no, we, we had a, with a customer called general dynamics, again, another fortune five and the largest defense contractor in the world. So general dynamics becomes our customer and Oracle gets a wind of it that their applications are now accessible to general dynamics intranet by virtue of this random company in Sunnyvale, which their team could not figure out a solution
Indus: Oracle comes calling. They sign a partnership agreement saying, oh, we are gonna do joint sales, joint marketing and, and blah, blah, blah, three months later, somebody from their identity management group reaches out saying, Hey, are you guys interested in a strategic M and a discussion? And of course we are contemplating what to do, you know, what would be the next set of growth, long story, but in the board and all of us decided that this is the best path for the company.
And then we did an M and a with Oracle.
Andrew: So they came in first. How do we partner up? Because if our customers are using this, let’s sell it together. And then while since we’re selling it together, we wanna own it. Dude. I found an old post from Naomi, your co-founder from 2013, here’s the post, uh, announcing it. He goes, the journey took 999 days.
Exactly. And came down with a perfect laning. So that was it less than a thousand days in business. And you sell the company phenomenal. Meanwhile by the way, name is not big on Twitter. That huge announcement got like six likes he, he’s more of a builder, I guess, than a tweeter, which is good. All right. I wanna know why you ended up a charge B first, I should say to anyone listening, notice how we just talked about how back then working with developers in India meant you got quality developers at a much lower price than you would in the us.
Well, that’s kind of the idea behind the team at lemon lemon. Dott IO will do that, but they work with Eastern European company with Eastern European developers. They started out with people in Ukraine, truthfully after the war, they had to expand beyond, but that forced them to really start looking beyond Ukraine and they have found a phenomenal group of developers that they will match anyone who’s listening to me up with based on your.
Based on what you’re working on based on the temperament, based on how much time you want. And you’ll have a vetted developer and a team of people at lemon, making sure that that developer is doing right by you. If you wanna get started, they already have incredibly low prices. Like I said, they go to these countries where you can get phenomenal developers at a great price, but if you want an even lower price from them, I’ve been friends with the founder for a very long time.
He’s actually coming to Austin. We’re gonna get together, uh, for a drink. Actually. I wonder if he drinks alcohol. I bet you, he doesn’t, he’s too much of a nerd to drink alcohol. I’m gonna say that Alex is not an alcohol drinker. Um, but I, but he is a smart, hardworking entrepreneur. And if you wanna hire from him at a lower price, you go to lemon.io/mixer, G that’s lemon.io/mixer G okay, dude, here’s the thing.
Then you go to work at charge. I love charge B. I had no idea how huge charge B was until I interviewed one of the founders here on Mixergy. They do subscription recurring management billing. They are kind of a quiet company with phenomenal sales, but why do you go to work for charge B after you’ve done so well with Bitzer
Indus: I think the same, same thing, right? You are curious as an entrepreneur, as an engineer, you are curious about everything in life before charge B. I had not built or sold products to small and medium businesses and, and was very curious around, you know, this whole phenomena of inbound content driven marketing, acquiring customers at $9 per person per month kind of phenomenon.
It’s like big, big, um, you know, back then and still now. So I get connected to Chris, the co and co-founder with one of their investors. And this was a time when I was kind of figuring out what to do next. I was basically at home thrilling my thumbs and, and my wife would say, Hey, go figure out a job. Why are you doing all day watching TV and get connected to Chris?
And he, and I hit it off and we dated. You know, uh, for, I would say three months before he thought that I am the right fit to be brought into, into his organization, you know, you know, it was series a company back then this is 20 16, 20 17 days. And, uh, he says, yep, I like you, but I don’t know what should be your role in the org?
Indus: 99% of the team is still in Chenai in, in 20 17, 20 16. So product would be impossible for me because I’m sitting here and my developers and my product manager sitting there, it would be dissonance hard to manage engineering, same thing, marketing. They had a team working out of India, and then we artificially created this job for me called.
You run growth, which means, you know, you do everything of this and that, and you figure out how to propel the company into the next orbit. And then we analyze and, you know, kind of work out. And then I joined charge.
Andrew: Okay. So you’re doing growth and this is a company that I don’t know if you could be open about what their revenues are at the time when you got started. But I’m looking right now as I’m going through, we’re talking about, do you have like a ballpark of where their revenue is to give people a sense of how big they are?
Indus: I don’t know the revenue numbers now, but I’m, I’m pretty confident. There’ll be between 50 million to a hundred million ballpark. ARR.
Andrew: So they wanted to get to that when you started out with them. I think they were in the single millions in revenue when you were there in the beginning. Right. And they wanted to grow. And so their need for high growth is what led you to come up with the idea for column after what, talk about what, what that high growth need led you and your team to do that.
Then you had to figure out how to undo later on
Indus: As a, as a growth person, what you’re doing, you’re experimenting. You say, okay, I’m gonna do things in product. I’m gonna do things in marketing sales, customer, success, retention, partnership, PR events, you name it. Every channel that we could think of, we ran an experiment and guess what? That does money and tools.
And my team would take my Silicon valley bank card and then put it on file, buy tools, put it on campaigns. And the finance guy would click call me at 90 days later saying, Hey, I see a charge in your statement called SHP star, blah, blah. What does that mean? Who did authorize? You know, who’s spending, I say I have no freaking idea.
and we would kind of roll over to the next quarter. And then we do an audit a year later. And without disclosing numbers, we lost like, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars, which we should not have lost because these are tools we should have been canceled. That was one layer of the seed for column.
Is there not a tool that gives me a first class view and more than that to the finance team, to track all these purchases that are being made, because it should not be sandwich between my Uber rides, my, you know, client dinner and my slack and my social outreach, you know, tools. Is there not a better tool?
That was the layer for column.
Andrew: And there wasn’t one at the time there was all companies were doing is going through finance departments. Like yours was.
Indus: There were a couple of tools, you know, classically back then SAS management, was it management? So there were tools designed for it to collect and give a fancy spreadsheet where you could say, yep, I have tool a tool B. And if somebody was not doing a single sign on, you will have no idea that somebody’s using a particular tool.
So they were reliant on a Google suite or an Octa to report back and they would crunch and show it. There was no tool that would say, oh, this is the money. And this is the tool. There was nothing that was conjoining. These two twins together. And that’s was the Genesis. I need to do something that controls the money and controls the visibility of those tools.
Andrew: So, let me see, true bill was founded 2015 with essentially the same idea for, for consumers. You founded column in 20, 19, 4 years later. So for four years there was not really a true bill for businesses. And you said, I’m gonna go build this thing. Okay. And the, and the original idea was to do what, to give employees a credit card so that they each had their own credit card.
And wouldn’t have to go to say the head of growth, the way that they did it, that the way that your team had to come back to you. And then through that, you can see who’s charging for what and check in with them. Was that how simple the first version was?
Indus: The first version was even simpler. The first version was, Hey, how can I collect a list by connecting to their accounting system? I would, let’s say you use QuickBooks. So I would connect to your QuickBooks and automatically siphon all the tools that you have paid money on. We were very gungho on the fact that.
The tool has to be finance centric because we had seen the it centric tools did not work where they would collect data from single sign-on systems. You know, if you do not know if you’re paying for it, what is the utility of even knowing that I have it because, you know, the core thing was the money that was being made wasted.
The problem with that approach, nobody would trust us with their businesses, accounting system access. We go, who the F are you random company with two guys? And how can I give you access to my QuickBooks? Because that has PNL data that has employee expense data. So we basically thought we have to become the data generators rather than data analysts or somebody who’s looking at other people’s data.
And that’s the card idea that came. What if we create. A card that is designed to be only used for SAS software cloud and media. You can’t buy Starbucks coffee, you can’t pay for dinner, but only SAS cloud and media. Boom. That, that was
Andrew: you could do that. You can have a credit card that keeps people from being able to use it for paying for flight or dinner, but allow them to use it for SAS. Okay. I wanna know how so one of my friends created, I, I kind of met him through these, these interviews. I got to know him. He’s the founder of empower it’s uh, one of these new banks.
What I’m understanding from new banks like empower and mercury is essentially, this is overly simplifying, but they’re tapping into the APIs of existing banks that are really doing the banking operation and what these new banks are doing is doing the face and the customer service of, of the business.
Is that how it works in the credit card world, so that you can say, we’re not creating our own credit card. We are just going to repackage somebody else’s card. How does it work?
Indus: So the two ways the credit cards work, one is exactly what you described. So you can take the infrastructure off an existing bank or a card vendor. So there are companies that enable you to do it, and you can launch a card for consumers saying, oh, this card is something where we will plant a tree every time you pay or, you know, expense or, or, you know, purchase dollar worth of products.
That’s basically fronting the existing card vendor. Don’t add any value other than marketing and you know, little bit of a creative idea in terms of how you do cash back rewards and stuff. We took a different approach. We said, we are not just doing credit card issuance. You know, that is an easy part. You know, we will authorize transactions as they come to us.
So let’s say you use our card, Andrew, you swipe it on, let’s say zoom.com. The, the zoom transaction from let’s say their payment gateway would come to columns infrastructure. And we will say yes or no, based on multiple rules based on your spending limit, which is easy. And whether zoom is a software product or not.
So we have an internal white list of thousands of software products. And when you swipe your card, we will only authorize those transactions and that makes it super different than everybody else in the world.
Andrew: So, but that means that you had to create your own capital one, which is a credit card, uh, uh, vendor, in addition to your own back office credit card, um, I don’t know, permission based system, like what did you have to build in order to get this off the ground to see if this idea was even worth pursuing?
Indus: So we use. Two partners to at least get the card issue and spot up and working. So we, we cannot issue cards on our own, just like mercury is a front to evolve bank as an example. So we use two partners. One is SU bank and another one is Marketta that takes the Saturn bank and use gives us an API. But the API is only for creating brand new cards.
That’s it? Every transaction gets forwarded to us and we authorize that transaction in real time. Marketa or sudden has no clue what this transaction contains, whether zoom or not, we inspect the payload and say, yep, Andrew is charging this on zoom. He has a limit of 500, he’s an employee of this organization and he’s, he can go and buy zoom as a product.
And we say, yes, and zoom gets money.
Andrew: I’m looking at Marta’s website right now. It says instantly issue and process card payments with our open API platform. Do they also issue you, you design the card under your name, column’s name, they then Des they print out the card or they, they, I don’t know, create the card and then they ship it out to your customers on your behalf.
Indus: They just give a card number to us.
Andrew: Okay. And then it’s on you to actually create the piece of plastic.
Indus: As a piece of plastic or use it as a virtual card on our dashboard. So think of, think of the layers in this business, right? So a, a card network is a marketplace. You know, visa is the perfect marketplace in MasterCard is on one side. You have merchants, which is acquires, which are their banks and the payment gateway to connect these pieces.
On the other side is card holders like me and between me and visa is a card issuing network, which is the likes of chase or Marketa or sudden. They give us an API to create a card on the fly. So let’s say you become KO’s customer, you’ll be on our dashboard. You click a button, you create a card on the fly, and that’s done by using Marketa API, and you use the card number to swipe and the, and then we process the transaction on your behalf.
Andrew: it seems like what Twilio did for text and phone. They do for credit card. I saw the snap and the look of recognition. I had no idea this infrastructure existed. Got it. So you didn’t have to invest deeply in that part of the business. You can focus on the things that matter to you, which is how do you set up the rules?
How do you make it easy for people to cancel a, a subscription or to restrict subscription? Right? You set all that up. How much money did it take? How much investment did you, did you take in, in order to set that up?
Indus: We raised a sea round of four and a half million and, uh, took us a solid 18 months to get this whole infrastructure off the ground.
Andrew: How did you know that it was worth doing that your customers were willing to use yet another card that was restricted to this and all these things that you envisioned? How did you know that this made sense?
Indus: I talked too close to, I would say 30. 35 art CFOs essentially did a cold outreach on LinkedIn to CFOs who are not connected to me at all. You know, CFOs were in my second degree and this is a nuance I’m gonna explain later. And many of these people said, yes, what you’re creating is useful. As long as you are in the flow of money, you let me control the card is not a hindrance, but a lubricant to my business.
I’m gonna give you a green light. And that gave us confidence to build this and start this and launch this today. We have more than 50 customers using the product and the card every day.
Andrew: How many card, uh, card holders, individual card holders are there.
Indus: Uh, we have issued close to 400 cards.
Andrew: How do you know that? Um, that you’re not leaving out good SAS vendors, just because they are small. It feels like one of the reasons that people are trying to sign up for their own software is because they discover something brand new, that management wouldn’t have signed up an agreement with. And how are you able to stay on top of all that
Indus: So we, we have a catalog of around 120,000 SAS products. Uh, we have a research team of two that is on a daily basis, looking at product hunt, looking at announcements from seed fund and then collating all of that and adding that data to our catalog every week to not leave out the smallest of the SaaS vendors who have just started.
Andrew: All right. And then now marketing, you’re the growth guy who helped charge B grow? What are you doing now for your own business to grow?
Indus: I think two things. We started writing good quality content, kind of, you know, table stakes at this moment. And that is giving us a stream of inbound traffic that comes in. We also do quite a bit of outbound. So we, our target is today companies that do between 10 million to 150 million in revenue finance teams that are struggling to pay and buy SA.
And that’s the cohort we are going after. What is happening is SAS has grown so fast and usually surprised at this Andrew that finance team does not know is HubSpot different from an outreach is outreach different from a mind tickle. Is Salesforce different from every other sales tools? Because the nuance is.
To the sales people, to the marketing folks. So when they see this, I have two invoices and the products look very similar. Their website exactly has the same messaging. Why should I need to approve? So we become their friends. We help them annotate these invoices further and they start loving the story that we are telling them.
You’re not just approving, but you are getting yourself more intelligent every day on the products that your company’s using.
Andrew: I didn’t realize that you went as small as a hundred thousand annual spend. That’s a pretty small size, even SMB, right? You have a couple of contractors, a few employees, either one will be get you to a hundred thousand in annual spend at this point. Especially if you, if you consider that we’re all working, remote, all the expenses are now online.
I’m looking at the payment on it. You don’t charge a fee for it. You issue cards is your money coming in from transaction fees, the stuff that the, that the purchaser has to pay you every time they process a card, that is where it comes from.
Indus: So the money does not primarily come from the interchange. As you know, it is called and monetized. We price ourselves as a SAS product. So for somebody who does, let’s say a million dollar in spend, we charge anywhere between 30 to $40,000. The card is just the front end. Andrew, you know, the bulk of the work is behind the scenes.
You know, ensuring that the vendors do not double charge you. And you’ll be surprised at that. Uh, we, we callate all the invoices. The biggest one is we look at your usage. So let’s say you bought 500 seats of zoom just to keep on the topic. And 200 of your employees never created a meeting. We are gonna flag you at the end of the quarter saying, Hey, you’re wasting $10,000.
Andrew: How do you know to do that? Dude, we had that situation here at Mixergy. I was afraid to even let go of a single zoom subscription that people who stopped working here had it, because I just didn’t want anyone to have that embarrassing situation with the customer or with an interviewee where the thing just ends at 40 minutes.
How are you able to know who logged in and tied?
Indus: Zoom has public APIs. And interestingly. So many of these modern SAS vendors, they have public APIs using those APIs. You can get the metadata of meetings in case of zoom, uh, usage of storage, how many, one 800 number dials have happened. You can collect all those metrics and then crunch it and say, oh, nobody is creating meetings.
And you can cancel those accounts in case of, you know, let’s say you have 15 employees, actually zoom provides a dashboard. You can log in, but it’s slightly painstaking. You have to kind of drill down and look at, Hey, who logged in and who did not look at the meetings and stuff. We do this automatically.
We, we use the APIs, crunch that number and give you a report saying, oh, Jack Jill and Mary 20, 20% usage, you know, Joe, Jill, and, uh, you know, Maria. 50% usage. And then you could take a decision saying, Hey, let me call them to downsize or ask them why they’re not using the product. Have they bought a WebEx or a blue jeans or a competing zoom product,
Andrew: oh, right. You could do that. That if there’s a new thing that comes out and they’re using that instead, or they’ve signed up for that instead, because you’re looking at it, you can see that. Oh, that is, that’s absolutely brilliant. Especially in the world of, uh, of meeting software where frankly, I’m, now I’m not on zoom.
You and I are now talking, using Riverside. I found that I stopped using zoom for a long time. And, um, frankly, we should probably cancel that zoom, but, but the fact is this is something that you could do with software. All right. I get where you’re going with this. Why is the company called CU? Q U O L U M.
Indus: call them actually is a TMI word. And this is again reliving my charge V memory. So you. Charge B is based out Chenai, um, beautiful city. And I have been a guest at many of the Airbnb hosts. So I used to travel to India to Chenai every couple of months and spend like, you know, few weeks living there, working with my team over there.
And in one such situation, I was living in this Airbnb home and this lady every morning, she would draw this beautiful floral pattern outside her home. By the time I would come back in the evening after my work, that floral pattern has faded away and she would repeat this the same next same thing next morning.
Um, she would use a ground chalk, uh, uh, rice powder, not a chalk powder. So she, it basically ground rice powder, very beautifully drawn. And each one of those pattern would have meanings. It would carry stories of universe mythology, uh, Chenai own culture, and. Portray to the world that this home is open for visitors after charge me when it got done.
I was kind of thinking of what should you name your startup? This is again the entrepreneur, right? Hey, I wanna create a business. The first thing is, is that domain? What is the name? Right that moment. I couldn’t find anything that had all the, you know, check boxes checked, and then basically, uh, changedd upon this.
Hey, how about column? Of course we write it slightly differently, you know, with a queue and that’s the Genesis of the name of the company.
Andrew: All right. Congratulations. I think you found another winner. I like that you have the domain. I wish Twitter was a little bit more organized because nobody is using the column Twitter account, right? It’s just, it’s just a suspended account. It’s gonna take you way too long to use it mean to get it and they’re, they would be willing to give it to you, but they’re way too annoying about their whole internal process.
Meanwhile, you, you could be using it well, well, now you’re column HQ on Twitter, and I should say, I, I kind of came into this with the understanding that you were just enterprise. I can see that you’re clearly even SMB and those accounts are free, I should say right up to a hundred thousand dollars and spend 25 cards.
And so on. There’s a, there’s a free plan for anyone who’s interested. I’m not getting a share of any of these sales. I should say. I just, I just like talking to you and I like this technology. I just like that. It’s out there. Um, before we go, I want to, I wanna say something that. I’ve said in past interviews, I’m in a new office in Austin.
And I’m wondering how the sound is this dude, John Bach, who’s a mechanical engineer, sent me this long message. And then he did a zoom conversation with me. One of the few times I did do use zoom and he goes. I think he starts looking around and he gives me suggestions. He made me realize we have kind of, um, patted parts of this office, but I didn’t do anything to the ceiling.
So I’m gonna get some ceiling tiles that will allow the audio to be absorbed. Instead of bouncing back. The reason I’m saying this is first to say, thank you to John Bach. And then second to say that anyone else who’s listening. If it’s sounding off, I’m in a new space, I’m very excited about the looks of this place.
I’m very excited about the whole ambiance. You haven’t even seen it. This desk is on wheels, so I could get different backdrops and I could get the view of this beautiful. Like we got five acres here in Austin. I wanna see all of them. Um, but I wanna make sure that it sounds right. So if you’re out there and you have any feedback for me, do what John did.
Just email me, Andrew mixergy.com, Andrew mixergy.com. I love to get your feedback and I wanna also thank the two sponsors that made this interview happen. The first, if you’re hiring developers, go to lemon.io/mixergy. And the second, when you’re ready to do, to make investments angel investments. Team went with other people go to VO bond.com/mixergy.
And finally, I’d be remiss. I don’t even know what remiss is, but people say it in this context. So I would be remiss if I didn’t say co Q U O L U m.com. Thank you so much for doing this. I’m gonna say goodbye then I’m gonna go look up what remiss means.
Indus: amazing talking to you, Andrews.
Andrew: Thanks. Same here.