Technology entrepreneurship in India is common. Serial entrepreneurship is less common. Women entrepreneurs in technology are a rare breed. So what’s the rarest of rare breed? Combine industry, role, gender and nationality to get the answer.
Answer: Women entrepreneurs in India who have managed the fine art of serial entrepreneurship in the technology space.
We love to hear stories about folks who break the stereotypical moulds. Speaking of women entrepreneurs in India, Sonia Soman from Pune is one such role model who sets an example for many aspiring technology entrepreneurs who dream of launching not just one, but multiple technology start-ups.
Several Indian technology professionals with brilliant tech skills & amazing startup ideas put their plans on the backburner and head off to the best bschools to learn about technology, entrepreneurship & business plans. Sonia decided to take the shorter route and jump in without any formal management education.
MBA Crystal Ball: Can you share a little bit about yourself? Education and professional background (before you launched your first venture)
Sonia Soman: I completed my B.E in Computer Engineering in 1994. I had landed a job with CMC Ltd during the campus placement drive and I joined the team that built the landmark Bombay Stock Exchange Online Trading System (BOLT).
After about 3 years on the project, I moved to US and worked for a startup that built products for the pharma industry. Here is where I got my first taste of a startup. Big dreams, shoe-string budget, a close knit and highly competent team. I began to toy with the idea of returning to Pune and starting out on my own.
MBA Crystal Ball: How did the idea of getting into entrepreneurship happen?
Sonia: I decided that I wanted to return to Pune and start my own venture though I wasn’t sure what it would be!
After resigning from my job, I went to meet one of the founders of the company. As I was about to enter his office, I overheard him talking on the phone about “something International”.
A light bulb went on in my head…I walked up to him and said I can help you set up an offshore center in India. I was elated when he wrote me a cheque of $1000 and said “Let’s get started!” That’s how it all began.
MBA Crystal Ball: While you were running the startup, what were the main challenges?
Sonia: We faced challenges just like any other startup, hiring great resources when we bagged projects and acquiring newer clients, repeat business and managing cash flows.
Fortunately for us we had a competent core team and our attrition levels were below average.
MBA Crystal Ball: During this time, did you ever feel the need for an MBA? Or any other formal training?
Sonia: Interpreting financial statements to gauge the value of the business looking at the numbers required study. Probably MBA would have helped.
MBA Crystal Ball: How did you manage to pick up skills?
Sonia: Taking Advanced Management courses from Stanford University was helpful.
MBA Crystal Ball: How did you raise finances for the venture? Any Venture Capital (VC) funding involved?
Sonia: Ours was a self-funded and profitable venture. We did not take any Venture Capital funding.
MBA Crystal Ball: How did you convince people to leave their cosy jobs to join your startup?
Sonia: It was not easy for sure. Quality of work, competitive salaries and long term incentives, onsite opportunities etc helped.
MBA Crystal Ball: Describe the acquisition process that led to your exit from the last venture?
Sonia: OASIS was a technology company that had a significant client base in the US, Europe, Asia and Australia. We had setup product development centers for some of our clients and had helped create IP for them.
One such client of ours (a US based company in the business intelligence domain) wanted to setup base in India, and initiated talks with us for an asset acquisition.
What followed was a long period of due diligence of financials, clients, team, assets etc. We created a transition plan to seamlessly integrate our team with theirs.
There were several dynamics at play. The two companies were structurally, culturally as different as chalk and cheese. Processes were different. In the end it worked out well for everyone.
MBA Crystal Ball: What were the biggest mistakes and the key lessons from the first startup?
Sonia: Sales is the most important function in a business and customer service is the lifeline. A happy client is a repeat customer and a repeat customer is the heartbeat of the business. Customer driven development is important.
We did make mistakes…didn’t know when and how to say no to clients and took some hits on revenues. We could have cashed in on the “flavor of the season” like Y2K or dot com boom but we didn’t.
We remained focused on our core areas. It was a conscious decision. Looking back, I feel it was an opportunity we missed.
MBA Crystal Ball: What’s happened since then? How did you come up with the second startup idea?
Sonia: Post the acquisition of OASIS, I headed the India center of the merged entity for a couple of years before joining a healthcare IT product company at a senior management position.
During these years, I used to be appalled at the amount of paper being printed and worse still, the amount of printouts being discarded within minutes of printing. Unnecessary paperwork led to wastage of time and resources; not to mention security breach what with confidential documents generally lying around. Other experiences that stayed with me were related to document tampering.
I came across candidates that went to the extent of tampering previous relieving letters, generating totally spurious experience letters etc. The way to discover imposters was time-consuming and expensive. We hired a 3rd party to carry out background verification of candidates. They charged us a bomb.
We felt that we could address these problems quite effectively with the use of digital signatures –
Thus www.truecopy.in came into being.
MBA Crystal Ball: For the current venture, how much does it help to have gone through the experience once? What are the newer challenges?
Sonia: It does help a lot. One has a better grip on how much to spend on which area of the business. Resources can be better managed. Client focus and Client driven development is the key and this is an important lesson learned.
This business is different in many ways that my previous venture. One – it is a product company and Two – we are selling in India.
The challenges are different. Sales cycle can get long because one has to go through several hoops before you get some face time with the decision makers.
It also takes a long time in decision making. So even if the value proposition is crystal clear, the deal takes time to materialize.
MBA Crystal Ball: What are the biggest differences between life as a professional (in a corporate setup) vs being an entrepreneur?
Sonia: By and large corporate setup is defined by lot of processes. Projects take time to move forward.
On the other hand there is a whole lot of infrastructure backing you up as you go about your job; right from travel bookings to latest productivity gadgets…everything is at your finger-tips. There is an assured pay-check coming your way at the end of every month. One gets used to the easy life so to speak.
Being an entrepreneur, your one eye is on innovation and the other is on efficient use of resources at hand. What I love about entrepreneurship is the total freedom to implement ideas, nurture dreams and scale the business.
MBA Crystal Ball: What advice do you have for budding male and women entrepreneurs in India?
Sonia: My 2 cents – Prototype your idea first. Show it to potential early adopters and get feedback. Engage in client driven iterative development as opposed to taking Venture Capital (VC) money at the word go. When you have a few clients, your idea has been tested and proven, that’s the time to plan your strategy to scale your business.
Now this concluding paragraph might sound like a line from a cheesy ad for a soap with 50% moisturising cream, but we’ll say it anyway. Sonia wears multiple hats in her personal and professional life. She is a mother, a wife, a successful serial entrepreneur…and did we mention, not an MBA.
For all the enterprising ladies reading this, if you have launched your own business (doesn’t need to be a large and fancy company) and are proud of it, please tell us a little more about it in the comments below.