Inc42 recently came across Akash Raman, Co-founder and CEO of Oodio,a photo-services company that works with photographers to provide them services of post-production, design, and printing. Akash is also an electrical engineer, and a graduate from Harvard University and BITS Pilani. After various stints ranging from being a Visiting Faculty at BITS Pilani, CEO at Engineers for Social Impact (E4SI), consultant at Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, and a few research experiences, Akash went on to co-found Oodio in 2011.
1) How would you describe Oodioin your own words?
Oodio is a photo-services company that works with professional and semi-professional photographers (wedding, travel, etc.,) in providing them the best end-to-end services that enable them to do what they love the most – click!
Most people enter the profession of photography due to their love for clicking, and of capturing stories and moments. However, they soon realize that a large amount of their time (typically 3-4 times) is spent on working on the images to make them client ready – culling the images to a specified number, color correcting the images, and then possibly designing albums using them and printing the albums. Oodio takes these tasks off a photographer’s checklist and acts as their back office by providing them these services (and sometimes even working with their clients directly, if the photographer wishes). Therefore, the photographers can focus on clicking, building their business, and spending more time with their loved ones. Today, Oodio works with the top 100 photographers in India and the US.
2) How did you come up with the idea?
I have always believed that the idea of a photo-services company like Oodio was just waiting to be implemented. Most people who have hired the services of a wedding photographer, for instance, know that it takes an undue amount of time for the images and the albums to be provided to them by their photographer. We noticed this trend when one of our co-founders realized that he had not received his wedding album on the day of his wedding’s first anniversary! He quickly brought a few people together (that included his wedding photographer and me), brainstormed it as a potential business opportunity, and we began Oodio in May 2011.
3)What were your initial aims, and how far have you progressed with respect to them?
When we began Oodio, we thought that it would be a quintessential outsourcing business focused on the US wedding market. However, we soon realized that India had a lot to offer too. Since then, we have been slowly able to expand across both the countries. We continue to provide our services to photographers, making their lives easy, bit my bit.
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We have till date focused heavily on getting the basics right: focusing on the building blocks of people and processes. We have been successful in bringing together a highly driven team from diverse backgrounds; Smita Bhat from a Marketing background who heads our Sales and Marketing, Padmanabhan Thangaraj (Paddy, another BITSian and a budding wedding photographer) who heads our reviews and product innovation, James Sanders (www.ellejae.com) who brings in his decade-long expertise in shooting wedding pictures, and a sound set of advisors who are based in the Bay area. We have been able to hire and retain phenomenal talent, and to create a culture where each employee holds the right to question the executive team and holds an equal stature as everyone else in the company.
We have also focused on building the processes from scratch, from sales to delivery, and have slowly put it all together to work like well oiled machinery. I believe that entrepreneurs focus too much on how their company looks to the external world without focusing on these essential elements. However, once these elements are built, verified, and rebuilt, it becomes much easier to reflect the true values of a company to the outside world. Though this is a continuous process, we are proud of having built Oodio thus far
4) What problems did you face while starting up Oodio? How did you tackle them?
Running a startup can be equated to being in the middle of chaos all the time, and learning from the chaos to remain two steps ahead of any mishap is the dream and attempt of every entrepreneur. While starting up Oodio we faced several challenges, three of which were:
- We tried to assume what the market needed. Hence, we trained our employees for many months on US weddings, before going out to our first customer. In this time, we missed the US wedding season, and were suddenly caught off-guard with no potential customers. That was one of our biggest learning – time is money.
- Because we missed the US wedding season window, we suddenly stumbled upon the Indian wedding market. We had a limited understanding of the Indian wedding market and it took us many face-to-face meetings to understand it and create products and services that suited it. India is a different beast altogether; everything from the services the consumers wanted, the pricing that suited them, to the sales, was different, and we took a while to understand it. This was our second biggest learning – listen to the market.
- The third problem that we faced was the realization that tools can be taught, but not aesthetics. Our first two batches of hires were people who were good at the tools – Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom etc. However, we never tested these recruits on the aesthetics. Therefore, while working on live jobs, we saw a few of them not having enough aesthetic sense to handle a photographer’s work. We retained the top performers (who continue working with us) but had to let go of a few employees. We then redesigned our recruitment process (that has been tested twice with 100% efficient results) and also designed a strong training process that enabled the new recruits to start working on live jobs from the first week onwards. That was our third biggest learning – if you run in the opposite direction, even if you are the fastest, you never win the race. Know thy direction
5) How have you changed as a person through the journey? How have you grown?
Personally, the journey (that I hope continues for years to come) has been an extremely satisfying one. As an entrepreneur, you learn to understand people and you learn how every emotion that you portray can have a lasting impact on your employees and co-founders. You also learn for example, the art of delegation, and also of focusing outwards. During this period, I also lived without any source of income for almost half a year, while working full-time on Oodio! I learned to live within my own means, of not worrying about the society’s expectations, and also learned to appreciate people around me.
At the same time, the active co-founders at Oodio (including me) spent a considerable amount of time in different functional roles. I personally worked and managed operations, recruitment and human resources, sales and marketing, product innovation, fundraising etc., at different moments of time, gaining learning that would otherwise be impossible to gain through any other channel (MBAs, a traditional job, etc.,). This is learning that tests one’s limits as well as makes them humble to realize that they need to learn more, effectively increasing their thirst for knowledge. I have even designed albums for our clients (despite not having the background), and got them reviewed multiple times to understand firsthand a photographer’s requirements.
6) What are your aims for the future (for Oodio), and how do you plan on reaching those goals?
Our immediate aim is to raise a small amount of funding for Oodio. This will enable us to reach our long term goals for the company – to create an end-to-end post-production and design company that is known for its quality and service across the world, and that enables every individual to do what he/she loves the most – click! We truly believe that we have built a world-class product that photographers across countries admire, and we now aim to create a whole community of people who admire and use it. While we do so, our other aim is to bring photography to the masses, but I’ll leave that for another article!
We have brought together a team of smart people who understand and live this vision, and we will continue working together to make it a reality.
7)Final words for our readers and aspiring entrepreneurs?
I could write a book on this – “25 Things First Time Entrepreneurs Should Know” but I don’t want to sound like a wise guy; I am still attempting to figure it all! But if I were to narrow it down to two things that I have figured, they would be the following:
1. There is no secret formula: No one is born knowing how to start a business or how to run it – they learn it. There is no secret formula outside of us; it’s perspective (and hence, execution), risk taking ability, and the thirst to lean more that enables us to achieve what we set out for.
2. Tenacity – the most important trait: Always believe in your product and idea till its very last day. Don’t give up and don’t listen to detractors too much (for the engineers – negative feedback is good, if in limited amounts!).