From harbouring a humble ambition of earning $1,000 a month to building a SaaS company with an Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) of $18 Mn, Paras Chopra, Co-founder of SaaS startup Wingify which completed seven years of its operations last year, has come a long way.
When Paras quit his job in 2010 to be an entrepreneur, all he wanted to prove to himself was that he was not foolhardy to leave a well-paying job for taking the risk of doing something of his own. But Wingfy’s roaring success over the years has left him stupefied as well.
For Paras, the journey that started with a humble dream of earning $1,000 to building a company with roughly $18 Mn ARR, to stepping down as CEO to make way for co-founder Sparsh Gupta to starting his writing blog Inverted Passion, is one full of interesting insights. In a conversation during Inc42’s Ask Me Anything on Facebook Live, Paras Chopra throws light on Wingify’s journey till now and the road ahead.
Paras Chopra And His Learnings As An Entrepreneur
Inc42: You recently stepped down as the CEO of Wingify and became a chairman and Sparsh Gupta took over as CEO. Usually, founders are very attached to their company and they don’t want to give up the title of CEO. Why this transition, and what will be your new goal?
Paras Chopra: Sparsh started as the CTO of Wingify, then became a business partner and for some time after that, he was also playing the role of a COO. One of the philosophies we have in Wingify is that you become a leader first and then get the title. That’s what has happened with Sparsh. It has been several years in the making where Sparsh has been taking more and more responsibilities and doing it really well. When I was away on a sabbatical, everything went over very smoothly. My philosophy is that I don’t want to involve myself in places where things can be better without me.
I think what I did is perhaps any startup founder’s dream: for a company to be able to grow without being involved in a lot of executive operations.
And I am not stuck to titles. If the leadership team and Sparsh are growing the company incredibly well hence I would rather not take that title. That way I think Sparsh deserves the title, that’s the role he has been playing for quite long. And it’s not just Sparsh, we have made a very strong leadership team over the last two years, and that team gives us tonnes of confidence. And I think what I did is perhaps any startup founder’s dream: for a company to be able to grow without being involved in a lot of executive operations.
This gives me a lot of space to think and also write and also think from a very long-term perspective. And I really want to go out and help nurture Indian ecosystem in whatever way I can. This also gives me extra time and space to do that.
Inc42: Do you remember how was your first day of being an entrepreneur?
Paras Chopra: For most entrepreneurs, it’s never the first day. You just start working and I don’t even remember how the first day was. It’s such a blur because you realise you are an entrepreneur when you become an entrepreneur. You make a sale and then you realise oh yes am an entrepreneur, till then it’s all tries.
I don’t remember my first day of being an entrepreneur but I do remember my first day of quitting the job and at that time VWO wasn’t making money and I was trying to make it work. I think it was exciting and scary at the same time. It was just a mix of a bundle of emotions at the time, but I wouldn’t change it for anything, it was a lovely experience.
Inc42: What would you advice: should one start with the job or quit the job and then start as an entrepreneur?
Paras Chopra: I think I am the supporter of the idea of preserving what you have and only letting go when you know what you want to do. I think quitting a job and then thinking what to do puts a lot of psychological pressure and risk in terms of what you want to do and also you start worrying about what if it doesn’t work. For me, I always want to have my path clear or have an active project am working on.
Inc42: What’s your advice to an entrepreneur on raising funding?
Paras Chopra: Before raising funding, one should reflect on what purpose the funding is required for. I want to emphasise that funding is not a magical bullet, it’s like a medicine that amplifies whatever is going on in the company. If something is going on well, it will amplify that and if something is going bad it will amplify that. It cannot give you a new insight.
I want to emphasise that funding is not a magical bullet, it's like a medicine that amplifies whatever is going on in the company.
Inc42: What were your lessons from the Stanford Seed program?
Paras Chopra: To give context, they started this programme in developing countries, starting with Ghana, Nigeria and last year they started in India. They selected 45 companies, and we were one of them. Sparsh and I attended that and it was a really good experience learning from Stanford professors.
The really interesting part was that they combine entrepreneurs from SaaS with those in fintech, agritech, supply chain etc. One of the major learnings was that even though we think tech businesses are different, the fundamentals of a business are very similar. When these professors came and analysed different companies, a lot of them were summarised in one page. The biggest learning was that: business core remains the same no matter what business you are doing.
Wingify And The Indian SaaS Startup Ecosystem
Inc42: You set out the goal of creating 10 products in 18 months. Why you started that, when Wingify was already growing, what were your learnings?
Paras Chopra: The driving force behind creating a new product is that no product lasts forever. All the products have a life cycle. While companies have to grow indefinitely, the products have their peaks and lows. And the best time to work on revenue streams in products is when you need them the least.
That was also one of the reasons, of me setting up the Pune office. We wanted to be away from our existing product VWO. Not to sort of disturb anything as I didn’t want to take any resources from VWO, but rather recreate something like a startup within a larger organisation and see if we can build new revenue streams out of it. PushCrew came out to be from such initiative when it was literally me plus two engineers and a product manager who sort of brought out the product.
Inc42: Tell us the difference between VWO and PushCrew?
Paras Chopra: VWO is a website conversion optimisation platform which helps you convert the traffic you are getting on your website into customers, and PushCrew is an engagement platform, it helps you bring back customers who are abandoning without purchase through push notifications.
Inc42: How do you think Wingify has an edge over other companies?
Paras Chopra: Our differentiation in the market is that first we focused on mid-market, and mid-market has a lot of segments not targeted by market-tech companies. In the mid-market, doing a sale is like doing an enterprise sale at 1/3rd of the price. Thus, for that, the companies based in India are uniquely positioned because our costs structure is also less.
We provide value for money in our product and not just from the software side but even from support and service perspective.
What we go out and promise to our customers is that the product quality is equivalent or better than anywhere in the world and that’s what all the reviews also show that its true. We are not just claiming it. But from a price point perspective, we don’t go out and charge top dollars because we are targeting the strapped mid-market and not the Fortune 500 companies. Thus, we provide value for money in our product and not just from the software side but even from support and service perspective.
Inc42: Why the move to Pune? Bengaluru would have been an obvious choice for a technology company.
Paras Chopra: I made an excel sheet with different cities as columns and rows were important parameters such as quality of life, weather, commute if you could put your head down on buzz and do your work. I had heard that Bengaluru had a lot of activity going on all the time. So, we knew what we had to do, that’s why I didn’t want to be very much distracted by what’s happening.
Inc42: Also, did you want to sort of grow Pune’s startup ecosystem?
Paras Chopra: Not really, I wasn’t attached to Pune. When we judged the quality of life, the factor of being away from the buzz, talent availability etc, Pune was at the perfect cross-section of these.
Inc42: How difficult is it to be Indian SaaS startup and sell to international clients?
SaaS sale is the Indian version of SaaS marketing and sooner entrepreneurs admit and accept it, better it is.
Paras Chopra: It depends on the market you select. If the market is SMB or mid-market, then it’s not at all difficult and I would say it’s preferable. But with enterprises, if you are doing a 100K deal then you have to be there, but if it’s below that you can be anywhere in the world and we have done that. All our sales team is in India, and they have done 80K-100K deals on the phone without visiting.
SaaS sale is the Indian version of SaaS marketing and sooner entrepreneurs admit and accept it, better it is. You can’t do sales from India until and unless you have a marketing channel giving you leads etc. Scoring leads don’t work. The customer has to show interest beforehand then only you can close him. You can’t convince someone out of the blue from India.
Inc42: Where do you see SaaS industry going in next few years? And what are the major breakthroughs we can hope for?
Paras Chopra: I think in the SaaS industry, a lot of niches will open up. I think SaaS has still not fully matured. For example, in CRM like beauty parlours, gyms etc, they have their own problems and for them, SaaS can open up avenues for these seemingly small problems.
I think a lot of specialisation is happening in SaaS, that means a tonne of big opportunities for many SaaS companies in India. So that’s my advice: to focus on niches that American companies would ignore. And there are tonnes of them.
Inc42: In the SaaS industry, founders have observed that India is a very good place to make SaaS products, but not to sell them? Also, Wingify has the majority of its customers from outside India. Why is it that we are creating amazing SaaS products in India but unable to sell them?
Paras Chopra: I have thought about it. Obviously, I don’t have a lot of contexts as you mentioned we don’t have many Indian customers. It has never been our priority to go out and understand why. So I can only take a few guesses. I think it’s mostly to do with our culture and upbringing, where we don’t value time and speed as much as we may value money. In the west, especially the US, the UK, Europe, time is literally equivalent to money.
We don’t value convenience as much. We are in Asia with the highest savings rate with the number of people putting money in FDs etc so that is a direct indicator of this.
Inc42: So people don’t want to pay the price for that convenience in India?
Paras Chopra: Yes that’s my guess, and SaaS is all about convenience. You can perhaps get a developer who builds you something or you can get a really nice SaaS product to get the meaning of convenience. It’s a matter of priorities.
Inc42: What all prerequisites someone needs to enter SaaS industry?
Paras Chopra: I don’t think there is any test paper to enter the SaaS industry and I don’t think an entrepreneur needs anyone’s permission to enter any industry. If it’s about skill sets, then you need all skills, right from being able to code to be able to sell to market to hire really good people.
Paras Chopra On Hiring And The Vision For Wingify
Inc42: What is your advice on hiring a sales team?
Paras Chopra: We don’t have an on-ground sales team as our focus is mid-market. Hence the inside sales team works well. But if you have an enterprise market, then you would need a ground sales team.
Inc42: What is your mantra for hiring a product team?
Paras Chopra: If it’s about hiring a product manager, what you have to see is what stage the product is in. If your product is in the early stage, you have to admit that you are hiring for an entrepreneur and not a product manager. Hence product manager skill is scaling up what’s already there, you cannot hire a product manager and ask him to build a business for you.
Product managers are mini CEOs of the company and to a large extent, they have to be the glue that binds the company together from a product perspective.
A lot of people think product managers magically make up everything, but what product managers really do is bring in a lot of processes and sense into this chaotic initial phase. Once you admit that, the key skill for a product manager is:
- Talking to customers, I think they have to be very comfortable in talking and making relationships.
- I feel they have to be really good at their technical skills because they will be the interface between customers and engineering team
- I think they have to be really good with design as well.
A lot of people say product managers are mini CEOs of the company and I think I agree to a large extent, they have to be the glue that binds the company together from a product perspective.
Inc42: Reading your tweets, one gets to know that you want to create a fund for open source developers to help them create additional value and having them work out of your office? Can you elaborate on that?
Paras Chopra: I am currently thinking that a lot of value gets created by people who are enormously skilled. Value creation is less about capital and more about: whether I have a really good insight or whether you have been able to build something and a lot of that value is software or technology based. Thus, I think a lot of value can be created if smart people dedicate their work and do it without expectation of return.
From that perspective, I have been exploring this and thinking of doing my bit about this and give some sort of grants for people who want to leave their job and contribute to open source.
Inc42: What is your vision for Wingify for the future?
Paras Chopra: We are very clear about our vision, which is to build a marketing tech platform. VWO and PushCrew are two pieces of a larger platform. We want to sort of create an ecosystem of marketing tech wherein if you are a tech company or software company, you can use Wingify’s marketing platform which is a connection of these products that we offer.
Rig from the first instance when the customer visits your website for the first time to him becoming a fan of your site, we want to offer everything on the same platform so that the company can manage everything on a single platform rather than multiple ones. The ecosystem approach makes sense because customers don’t have to engage with the new vendors every time. Thus, they engage with just one vendor who gives them service and adds more value.
Inc42: Since the past two years, your vision has kind of changed, especially in the last year. Do you believe the same? If yes, in what way?
Paras Chopra: I think the broad vision remains the same and will remain the same. Our sort of interest has always been to make sure Wingify plays a very big role in projecting India as a very admired tech place. Building really great products in India and becoming global: this vision will always remain the same.
What inspires us is still the same: to make globally competitive products out of India.
Although now we have narrowed down to focusing more on marketing tech as we think there is a big opportunity for us in next few years to consolidate our efforts. We want to do fewer experiments and conserve our energies but what inspires us is still the same: to make globally competitive products out of India.
Paras Chopra On Writing And His Many Other Passions
Inc42: Tell us something about your writing blog Inverted Passion.
Paras Chopra: I took a two months sabbatical in December and January. The idea was that a lot of times people keep asking me about my lessons and journey and I felt that I was giving a very surface level understanding of my lessons – that this worked because this worked. I felt guilty of not being able to give very convincing answers.
Even though those lessons may or may not work for others, but I really wanted to understand why did VWO succeed, while other 10 experiments failed, thus, I wanted to take that time to reflect very deeply. What makes a successful product, what makes a successful company etc and not just on the surface level but really from a psychology and economics perspective.
That’s why I took two months off and started reading research papers etc. There are a lot of Nobel Prize-winning psychology economics paper and I read all that not just from an academic perspective but also related it to my own experiences. That’s how I started connecting the dots.
Taking those two months off was a very good experience for me. Now if someone asks me, I can give a research-backed answer and not just from my gut perspective.
Inc42: You also planned to write a book during the sabbatical?
Pras Chopra: Initially, the idea behind the sabbatical was to write a book. But when I started writing it, I realised it was a waterfall approach, so I decided to write chapters and post it on the blog and get feedback. A bestseller book in India sells around 10K copies, but my blog has already reached 30K-40K readers. If my objective is to spread my ideas, then a book may or may not be the best medium.
And that’s the whole idea of Inverted Passion. I want to see what my audience is comfortable with, it could be in the form of meetups too. That’s why we are organising our first meetup in Bengaluru. If people are not reading books then it could be a meetup, video, blog post etc. I want to do things in a way audience wants it to be done, and not just the way I am passionate about.
Inc42: You have many diversified interests? Is there a common thread amongst all of them or are you trying to be an expert generalist?
Paras Chopra: I think I am just exploring my creativity- wherever it takes me. I think that’s one of the things that are internalised and you could let the world surprise you, hence what I like doing is not stop asking ‘Why’. The thing I really want to avoid is having high-level concepts, they sound good but you yourself are not convinced, and neither can you convince anyone else.
Inc42: Has asking ‘WHY’ helped you somehow?
Paras Chopra: I think it’s very important and it ultimately boils down to appreciating theory. I mean a lot of people either gravitate a lot towards practical experience or in academia you only gravitate towards theory and not go out in the real world. But entrepreneurs live in the real world, so for them it’s very important to keep asking why to build up their mental model or why did something happen. It’s very easy to rationalise something and say it was an experience but unless you gain and build a better mental model from that experience it was sort of a wasteful thing.
Inc42: Which book are you currently reading?
Paras Chopra: I am reading four books – one of them is The Square and The Tower by Niall Ferguson, and the second one is Mindfulness; the third is The Elephant In The Brain by Robin Hanson, and the fourth one is Demon.
Inc42: The next gadget or technology product you are looking to get your hands on?
Paras Chopra: I am looking forward to a mixed reality glass. I heard Apple is working on something where you get away from the iPhone and everything will happen in your glasses itself.
Inc42: Your favourite entrepreneur in the Indian startup ecosystem?
Paras Chopra: Sridhar from Zoho.
Inc42: Who do you look upto apart from Sridhar?
Paras Chopra: I look up to a lot of professors who are active on Twitter, I learn a lot from them.
Inc42: One skill you think is crucial for success for an entrepreneur?
Paras Chopra: To be technical, i.e. to be able to code or to understand when your team is telling you something. Today, it’s very important to be technologically aware especially if you want to run a tech company.