“My goal was to make INR 50K in the first month or $1,000 when I started Wingify in 2010. I just wanted to prove to myself that I was not a failure. I had left a well-paying job, which worried my parents. So very honestly, I just wanted to make that money in the first month to prove to myself that this startup experiment of mine had not failed,” reveals Paras Chopra, co-founder of SaaS startup Wingify which completed seven years of its operations this year.
But in a month’s time, Paras realised that he need not have worried. Because in the first month, he made 4x of the coveted $1000 sum, which doubled the next month, and has been doubling ever since, growing at such an unprecedented pace that in 18 months’ time, Wingify made its first $1 Mn – the first much sought after ARR benchmark for a SaaS startup.
So much so, that it even caught Paras Chopra by surprise, who humbly admits, “It was unprecedented for the ambition of INR 50K I had.”
For Paras, the journey from that started with a mere dream of INR 50K ($765) to roughly an INR 118 Cr+ ($18 Mn) company, well almost 23,000X times his ambition, ironically started with a bunch of failures.
He nonchalantly states, “I started Wingify seven years back and the tipping point was multiple failures.”
Paras Chopra: From Engineering To Coding To MarTech (Marketing Technology)
In his engineering college days, Paras Chopra tried his hands at a number of startups in diverse areas. So from dabbling with an independent music startup to one in the advertising network, Paras’ startup journey during his college days consisted of a similar pattern:
- getting an idea
- getting excited about the idea
- putting the idea to practice online
- and then finally waiting for a miracle to happen.
However, as he reflected more and more on his startup stints, he started analysing why his products and startups were not working.
“I realised that I wasn’t marketing them at all. Because marketing was a strange and alien concept to me,” he reminisces, which is understandable because for a second year engineering student, marketing in indeed a concept much removed from the curriculum. And that’s what prompted him to start learning about marketing.
“I found marketing to be extremely exciting because it was very different from engineering, very different from the simple process of coding something and then getting an output. It was actually competing for someone’s attention,” he reveals.
And what followed was a natural progression. Given that he came from a Machine Learning background, he slowly started gravitating towards the analytics part of marketing, delving deep into Google analytics and A/B testing. Those very learnings prompted him to combine his newfound passion for marketing with data analytics in his next startup Wingify which he launched after working for a year and a half after college.
Thus in Wingify’s journey, quitting his job which used to pay him INR 50K was the first milestone for Paras Chopra. One year at the job meant that he worked on Wingify after work and on weekends. But post that he worked from home for about a year, a year which was much instrumental in shaping the product.
“After breakfast, I would lock myself up in the room, code continuously, just emerge from this zone for lunch, and then go back again. So my social life was practically zero.”
Recalls Chopra, “After breakfast, I would lock myself up in the room, code continuously, just emerge from this zone for lunch, and then go back again. So my social life was practically zero.”
He chuckles that his mother still teases him that she got him an office because he was becoming anti-social! But Paras Chopra relished that phase, comfortably coding away to glory, removed from the pressures of commuting to work.
Of course with co-founder Sparsh Gupta joining him in 2011 and the company hired its first employee, it was inevitable that they had to formalise structure and move into an office.
“It was then that differentiation between work and personal life started for me. Before this, I was just in this dazed state where I would not know what is work, what is life.”
That piece fell in place as the company started expanding.
Wingify: Building A Global SaaS Company On A Culture Of Curiosity
By the end of Wingify’s second year of operations, the startup had a ten-member engineering team in place. Paras remembers that in an impromptu fashion, the team decided to go on a company trip to Thailand.
“No reason, no occasion. And that became a ritual for the first five years. Even until we grew to 150 people, the entire company went on an annual trip. Those were really good times which bonded as a company. Of course, at 200, it became a logistical challenge.”
But keep aside the team trips, culture has been very important for Paras from the start. He meticulously interviewed almost every person in the team till it grew to about 120. For Paras Chopra, getting people on board who thought differently was a priority. And for that, he relied on asking a lot of unconventional questions.
For instance, he would debate with the interviewees on the existence of God. “So the idea was not to hire an atheist but to judge if that person was open enough to have a conversation around a sensitive topic. That’s why I wanted to have an honest conversation about their beliefs.”
It is this aspect which is majorly encouraged in Wingify’s culture – to speak up. The startup conducts open office hours multiple times a week, anyone can book it and monthly town halls where people can also ask questions anonymously. Every quarter people also rate their managers and the company in an anonymous fashion. The idea is to encourage people to not to take the words of the manager at face value but discuss and debate.
“India is a very deferential culture but the world is changing fast. I did not want that culture in Wingify."
“India is a very deferential culture but the world is changing fast. I did not want that culture in Wingify,” he adds.
Even today in the interview process, Wingify follows something called Bar Raiser – a practice taken from Amazon. So even after all the interviews are clear, there is one person who will interview the prospective candidate from the cultural perspective. That person is not the manager on the same function.
Paras Chopra explains, “The incentive to hire someone just for a functional fit is reduced if that person is not a cultural fit. We are very cognizant of the fact that we need to hire someone who blends into our culture fast.”
Wingify’s Challenges: The Curse of Complacency And Not Competition
For the first couple of years, it was all about learning and growing as a company. But after a point of time, when Paras got comfortable with basic processes, he started reflecting on the fundamental question – what was Wingify’s purpose?
This reflection started in the fifth year of the startup’s operations and the reason behind Wingify’s challenge was quite opposite to that of most startups, not the challenge of competition but that of complacency. Paras Chopra who also wrote a blogpost about it, explains, “Our challenge very quickly became the challenge of complacency. We were getting very successful very soon and it was sort of an autopilot for a long time. Every month, the revenue would increase, the number of leads would increase, and customers would increase. We were scrambling to grow at that pace because it put a lot of demand on us given my maturity as a leader at that time, the company’s maturity in terms of processes, and everything took us fair amount of time to catch up on. I believe we are still catching on.”
This soul searching was also prompted by the fact that the company did not have investors/ advisors to fall back on. As Paras aptly puts it, “We made several errors as there was no background to doing this right.”
And that soul-searching led Wingify to realise that what it had done was to create a product that was globally successful. And herein lay its chance to becoming a successful global name out of India.
“How many Indian companies have been able to do this? The number that comes to mind is very low. Whereas on the other hand, so many Japanese, American, and Korean companies are popular all over the world including India. We felt that we had a small chance, maybe 0.01% at a small scale-and that became our ambition.”
And it is this ambition the startup has tried to execute with its product VWO. The VWO is such a hit with the foreign audience that 99% of its customer base is outside India. Thus slowly, Wingify’s vision has become disassociated with a product and associated more with the thought of becoming a globally admired company out of India.
It is this thought that has also given Paras and the team the clarity on why it makes sense to remain bootstrapped as long as possible. “Because then it becomes less about financial exit and more about creating an institution that lasts beyond us,” he says.
Even though right from the get go, there was significant VC interest in the company. Yet Chopra never sort of took the plunge to go that way. Of course, now with his interests aligned more towards leaving a legacy than bagging a fortune, the question of VC funding has faded away entirely.
Another reason why Paras Chopra is speaking about such problems and challenges, now with the launch of the ‘Wingify on growth’ publication, is that he does not want other people to make the same mistakes. Quite unlike a startup entrepreneur, he has spoken about complacency and battling with depression as well.
“I want to talk about things that are talked about less. Everyone talks about startup struggles and successes but no one talks about what happens as an outcome of success. Not everything is hunky dory. It’s just an extra perspective available to people who would not otherwise normally find it. And there’s no point achieving so much and not sharing. I want to share as much as possible to fire up other people,” he says definitively.
“Because I want to see a nation of billion people produce great companies.”
For Chopra, that inspiration to build a great company stemmed from the products he uses daily. Be it Google or Apple or Honda or even homegrown SaaS player Zoho, Indians are surrounded by businesses which are thriving globally and have a global impact.
“If they can do it, we can do it too,” he believes.
Competition In SaaS On The Rise
Wingify’s problem may not have been the competition but Paras Chopra acknowledges that competition for any category in SaaS is increasing.
“If you think of an idea, you will find a company out there. Seven years back it was not like that. So every year you have thousands of companies starting up, which is a good thing from a customer point of view that they have a lot of options available. Also, competition also drives prices for customers,” he reflects.
Paras, however, believes that having made the mistakes that Wingify made in SaaS, it is not easy for a newbie to match the experiences accumulated by it in just one or two years. Being one of the early SaaS players from India gives Wingify a definite competitive advantage.
“Our SaaS experience helps just as our brand name in martech. These days creating a brand is becoming increasingly difficult. Getting attention has become very difficult,” he reflects.
And it is to keep this momentum going that he definitely wants to double down and solidify Wingify’s presence in this space. Thus on the anvil are plans to build an ecosystem of products that give great value to marketing organisations across the world, across verticals. To work on this, Wingify has a separate team tasked with building their next product in the marketing ecosystem.
Wingify’s Recipe On Building A Global SaaS Startup From India
Paras believes that one of the first things founders should start with is understanding what marketing is itself.
“I don’t think you can delegate marketing because in the truest of sense, understanding marketing is who you are selling to, what’s their buying cycle, where do they hang out, what message will resonate the most. I don’t think the right strategy is hiring a content team and expecting to work magic on it.”
Especially if the founders are from engineering or HR tech or law background, they have to understand how marketing works in the context of their industry. Because building a product today has become relatively easier today with cloud and related technology components. What is becoming difficult is getting attention. So his advice to founders would be to become comfortable with the idea of marketing and only then hire someone externally.
Go out and make yourself uncomfortable by exposing yourself to products and companies that are better than yours.
He also advises them to go and meet customers and extend conferences globally. More than exposure, it’s the inspiration that’s needed. He aptly says, “Go out and make yourself uncomfortable by exposing yourself to products and companies that are better than yours. Seek inspiration from that experience.”
As far as cracking the Indian SaaS market is concerned, he feels that India still has a good amount of time to catch up.
“Using multiple SaaS products requires a certain kind of maturity in the organisations in terms of processes. And India still has to catch up on that. At least from our experience, many Indian companies are transactional and tactical and very few of them have a longer-term vision of where strategically they are going. And you can only assemble a good portfolio of SaaS companies that will help you when you have a longer-term vision in place.”
No wonder, Indian customers comprise of only a measly 2% of Wingify’s portfolio whereas the rest of the world is its big playing field!
Paras Chopra is bang on when he talks about the increasing ease of building products but the mounting difficulty in gaining attention amidst the noise of crowding and competition. Martech thus becomes a highly crucial area for every product company- be it SaaS or non-SaaS. A recent industry report by eConsultancy revealed that over 50% of companies across the globe are looking at conversion rate optimisation as crucial to their overall digital marketing strategies. Added to that are favourable indicators. As per a report published by Google and Accel Partners in March, last year stated that a $50 Bn market awaits Indian SaaS products and companies. India could end up garnering 8% of the global SaaS SMB market which is expected to grow to $132 Bn by 2020.
No wonder, Wingify has its sight set high on the rewards that lie ahead for SaaS products. It is this growing need which Wingify aims to leverage through its new VWO. Interestingly, VWO serves some very famous companies like Samsung and Toyota- companies whose products and global fame has been the inspiration for Paras Chopra to build a world-class SaaS company from India. That itself speaks about the success of Wingify and Paras’ ambition. And even though competition may continue to rise, what will strongly catapult Wingify is its founder’s belief to stick to it to create something beautiful for a lasting legacy.