The story of Meeting Bill Gates, Missing the Smartphone Wave and Scaling to 50 Million Users

Title image for episode with Abhinav Sinha of Eko

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Abhinav Sinha(@sinhabhinav) came from a corporate background before he joined his elder brother Abhishek to dive into building a startup for financial inclusion. Through his journey, Eko(@ekospeaks) has run out of money many times. They even missed the smartphone wave and every time they ran out of runway, they pivoted. As Abhinav rightly puts it, his mantra “Hard work, Patience and Perseverance” is the key to their success. Through the episode, you can see how his mantra has helped them not just stay afloat but also thrive.

At one point in time, the brothers thought they should build a product which they could explain to their Mom. Abhinav Sinha on Maharajas of Scale shares his 12-year long journey. The multiple milestones including that of meeting Bill Gates, the roadblocks, the views of success on the other side of perseverance and his relationship with the companion through the path, his brother.

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Here are some interesting excerpts from the conversation about his journey

06:41

While we studied, we did come across a lot of work in the government and the policy making that was happening around financial inclusion. Honestly we thought about the space more from a payments opportunity perspective. We just saw it very similar to how telecom operators grew widely. At a very rapid pace, in India and outside. We saw the space like that, rather than seeing it as a very difficult with a lot of policies, a lot of regulations, tough to reach the customer. 

9:53

I think we’ve pivoted quite a few number of times. I’ll give the number of pivots that we’ve had. It is probably the number of times we’ve come close to shutting down the company. Each time we ran out of cash we probably had to pivot. It was a necessity to pivot to figure out where else can we survive and thereafter where else can we grow and to share where we are at this point in time.

Resilience As DNA

14:11

Abhishek says this a lot to me, that I think resilience is kind of DNA which all of us, I must say most of the Indian entrepreneurs have, we don’t die. We know how to survive. I think we know good and bad to that. Actually, I don’t think so we are good at understanding when should something stop? And the good thing about that is because we don’t know when something should stop. We just keep trying.

20:07

We just struggled to explain that there is something called value added services behind mobile operators, and we build software, which helps them to deliver these services to the end consumers. We just struggled to explain to our parents and my mother in particular. So we decided why don’t we do something that it’s very easy to explain to them. We can explain this to our parents, if we open bank accounts at retail stores and this is going to be super fantastic. 

Abhinav’s Experience of Working for Oracle

35:23

I was coming from an experience of working for Oracle – the experience, the work culture, the processes the way the organization treated its employees, were absolutely world class when it came to Oracle way back in 2003 to 2005. It took a lot of unlearning for me in the first six months of 6d – to not to get use to from the ways in which Oracle worked and how it treated us when we used to work there -to getting used to, having one’s own desk, coding day in day out, there were no in times, no out times, it was never finished.

I think that change was fairly difficult for me in the first six months. But once I started to get used to it, and when I started to enjoy it. I think the next one and a half years that I spent with 6d was absolutely beautiful with a lot of learning.

The Experience Of Coding

40:03

Just the experience of continuous coding, for me – maybe we were a gang of about two or three guys who just coded endlessly for 21 days and built an entire recharge platform and deployed it on the 25th or on 28th day, was a fantastic experience. Just to do that in so short period of time, it would have been completely unimaginable in my earlier experience. From the second customer onwards, I remember telling my founders in 6d that ‘hey, you know, now I have built the product I have launched the product.

I know more about this product that anybody else, why don’t you let me stand in front of the customer. I’m going to get you a new customer’. Just the experience of, pitching and pitching to a new customer, failing in it and then subsequently succeeding in it, building it out, launching it, looking at bugs and looking at downtimes. I think until and unless one goes through that experience, how does one learn how to run one startup. I don’t know if there’s any other way of doing this. 

Never Give Up!

53:50

We were struggling to get money out of a bank of our banking partner. We had no other option but to pull the plug. Eventually we did. I think a very good suggestion from Abhishek was that we shouldn’t just put locks on our office and go back home. But let’s just stay here. I think maybe he had an intuitive sense that people would turn up in our office. That’s what happened. For about 30 40 minutes, they just did not listen to us or whatever we were telling about our side of the story, but eventually they started to realize. And we would have never imagined that there was an opportunity to charge them to run our company. But eventually, that is exactly what we ended up doing.

Even Startup journey has its share of twists and turns. Eko is a perfect example of facing the obstacles and rising again one more time. Here’s wishing for smoother roads for the rest of journey!

Listen to another incredible Fintech Story: Nischal Shetty of WazirX: Season 1, Episode 25

Show Notes

Follow Abhinav (@sinhabhinav)

Learn more about Eko Financial Services

The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick talks about how to talk to customers

Learn about the Theory of Disruption by Clayton Christensen

Spot some prominent words with the conversation of Abhinav Sinha on Maharajas of Scale

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Episode Transcript


SUMMARY KEYWORDS

eko, abhishek, 6d, building, india, financial inclusion, retail outlet, consumers, scale, bank, absolutely, understand, retail store, called, people, bank account, services, gave, thought, retailers

SPEAKERS

Krishna Jonnakadla, Abhinav Sinha, Nida Sahar

Krishna Jonnakadla  00:00

This is Maharajas of Scale, the podcast where we go behind the scenes and talk to founders who are demolishing the myths around building and scaling a big business in India. These are the stories that have shattered the assumptions around Indian consumers and are changing the game completely. I am Krishna Jonnnakadla serial entrepreneur, co founder of flood the fashion located in town and startup mentor bringing you these stories. Hey everyone, this is Krishna Jonnakadla  from Maharajas of Scale. Today, we are speaking to someone who potentially touched some of our lives through his venture eco financial services. We are speaking with Abhinav Sinha who started echo more than a decade ago and has done a tremendous amount of work there. Abhinav, welcome to the show.

Abhinav Sinha  00:25

Thanks a lot Krishna. It's absolutely a pleasure to be talking to you on the show.

Krishna Jonnakadla  00:28

Awesome. So Abhinav I still Remember, I think way back in 2005 or 2006, there was an article in, I think the Harvard Business Review about some Bangalore based organization which had done SIM card level banking. And it was, you know, very hyped up at that time. For example, in the Indian rural landscape, there are a lot of vegetable Mondays and doing land in between them and farmers becomes difficult. So this money transfer was a problem. And since our banking infrastructure is not spread out there, that was a widely talked about startup, but none of them came to sort of fruition. How did this spark happen? Why financial inclusion? Why Eko?

Abhinav Sinha  00:52

Thanks for asking this question. Question. Now, this goes back to our last startup, which Abhishek who's my co founder at Eko. Abhishek had started 60 telecom solutions in 2002. And, you know, I had joined Abhishek and 6D a couple of years down One of the projects we did in early 2000, was about making prepaid cards redundant. If you remember, about 15, many years back, people would walk into retail stores. To buy prepaid cards, we would take those credit cards, scratch the card, take those 16 digit numbers, put that and send them send that 16 digit number or an SMS, to reach out their phones. But if you go to a retail store, now, you don't need to buy a scratch card, you can actually go to a retailer and say, Hey, why don't we just reach out to me with any denomination, let's say 500 rupees. And that retailer would be able to reach out you instantly. And this was one platform that we had built in our last startup. And we had successfully deployed it in a couple of mobile network operators, you know, a couple of countries outside India. And it gave us a very good insight that if you know at the end of the day in mobile network operators ecosystem we call it recharge transactions. But we could also call it a deposit transaction into an Lexan. prepaid account. And we just thought that if this technology could enable deposit transaction into a mobile networks, talk time account, why can't a similar technology actually make deposit and withdrawal happen at a retail store? And if you remember in 2005 2007, that timeframe, there was a lot of policy work that had started regarding financial inclusion. You know, we came across articles with said that India had less than 20% penetration of bank accounts. And since we had this, you know, experience of looking very closely at how prepaid recharge scaled absolutely fantastically for many operators across the globe. We thought that you know, if a similar technology back end could be brought to a bank, similar scales could be achieved. And being technology guys, we just knew the technology in and out We thought that if we put this to a bank, you know, we could really put a, you know, make a really big dent to the cause of financial inclusion. And that's, that's really the birth of Eko in way back in September of 2007. That's how we got inspired to solve this problem.

Krishna Jonnakadla  04:04

 Interesting. Well, not many entrepreneurs are forthcoming in terms of their starting dates under the pretext of making their startup look successful within a short span of four to five years. I've seen a lot of startup startup entrepreneurs actually finds their starting dates, but in your case, I see in all honesty 2007 that's a pretty long time. It's been between a very, very interesting traveling lots of ups and downs, 12 years. So I I have some more follow up question on that. But before we do that, what was your background? What did you do until then before you joined Abhishek in 6D telecom?

Abhinav Sinha  04:43

Sure. I passed out from my engineering college in 2003. I worked for Oracle for about a year and a half in Hydrabad. And immediately after Hydrabad i joined 6D, which was Abhishek''s startup. And I worked there for about two years. Abhishek and I, you know, worked very closely on this particular prepaid recharge product, and which inspired both of us to give it a shot again, and to start Eko.

Krishna Jonnakadla  05:23

So, early 2000s until late 2000s, maybe I would say up until 2012. Until telecom became endless cash cow to milk. It was an interesting space to be in, especially younger entrepreneurs could get in and create meaningful enterprises out of it and could make a decent fortune. Unfortunately, it's no longer the case. What let's talk about the financial inclusion part I want to quiz you on your thinking about anything you do that touches humanitarian stuff in India. Health care, financial inclusion, sanitation Given the gigantic complexity size, the morass of regulation politics that exists in our successes, either by maybe some, you know, right connections or the right places or it possibly is like, a two decade, three decade, four decade long process and even after that you may not see, you know, meaningful personal outcomes as well. So it's a little NT intriguing you both were young, you saw you tasted some telecom success. Financial Inclusion at such a young age seems like a very hallowed goal at that time. Can you elaborate a little more?

Abhinav Sinha  06:39

Absolutely. Krishna, me while you know, while we studied the you know, we did come across a lot of work in the government and the policymaking that was happening around financial inclusion, but honestly, you know, when we thought about we really thought about the space more from a payments opportunity perspective. You know, we just saw it very similar. To how telecom operators grew virally, and very at a very rapid pace, in India and outside, we kind of saw saw the space like that, rather than seeing it as a very difficult lot of policy, a lot of regulation, tough to reach the customer. We didn't really see it like that. I think that that I would say, you know, was probably because of my naivety, you know, we do believe in understand the solution, or the problem to the extent that we today understand, but I think our lack of information about the space actually got us started, we really thought that let's Why can't we create a Visa or MasterCard out of India, and without realizing the, you know, the complexities of working with the bank regulators, payments being so, so close to policymakers as well, we really did not understand the complexity of it. And I think good and bad, I guess if we really understood it, not sure whether I'll be shaken, I would have decided to go forward with it. And the bad aspect is that you know, if you don't know the space really well, it takes some time to to kind of get, you know, to figure out what are the ups and downs of particular space. So looking back, you know, 2007 you you rightly mentioned that Telecom, telecom industry was something like an internet, right. It was a platform on which a lot of companies lot of solutions, were able to, you know, were built in early 2000. And we, we kind of, you know, leverage that and we learned our lessons while working with the telecom operator. However, when we started in 2007, we started designing a solution for feature phones. We designed the solutions over SMS and ussd rather than thinking about data, and you know, we started to design a solution even before Android came in. So we started in 2007, which is the year where where the first iPhone got launched. So it did it did take us a while to understand the the complexities of the space in particular the regulation, the the policy, work that was happening in that space. And in parallel also the rapid change in technology which which was happening, you know, we started designing on, on feature phones, and it very rapidly before we could really, really change, it was all about smartphones and data and things like that. And so yeah, it was it was, it was quite an experience building solutions for this space. And quite rightly, as you mentioned that, you know, we, we really did not honestly did not understand financial inclusion, you know, in its entirety. When we started it, we genuinely as young entrepreneurs wanted to build something like a Visa MasterCard out of India.

Krishna Jonnakadla  09:39

So from that starting point, where are you today? Have you gone from being an idea a and seen multiple iterations? How close Have you come to achieving your vision and what kind of scale have you achieved?

Abhinav Sinha  09:53

Like any other startup I think, you know, we have as far as the ideas are concerned, I think we've did quite a few number of times and against the number of pivots that we've had is probably the number of times we've come close to shutting down the company. Each time we ran out of cash we probably had to pivot It was a necessity to pivot to figure out where else can we survive and thereafter Where else can we grow and to share where we are at this point in time mom echo is a is a platform which connects brands to consumers. The way we describe consumers for echo is that we look at consumers who do not have access to digital money and are unfamiliar with the language English. And there are a lot of brands we started with the financial services particularly with the banks, but today there are a lot of brands across categories you know, for example insurance, mutual funds, mobile gaming, entertainment, many other categories including matrimony many other categories of brands are present in India, which wants to reach to consumers who do not have access to Between money, and an unfamiliar with the language English. And what Eko has done is we've built an intermediary layer, which helps the brand connect to to the end consumer. The financial inclusion of the payment part comes in, is because this particular set of consumers do not have access to digital money. So our set of intermediaries that we have put in actually allow these consumers to have cash in their hands to consume digital services or many other different kinds of services. Over the last 12 years, we have catered to over 50 million unique consumers. And we've got a little over 150,000 intermediaries who work with us and the way we see the world going forward is close to about 400 to 500 million people in India will consume digital services who do not consume digital services today will consume digital services over the next three to four years time. We believe that view, we will be the bridge for them to consume different kinds of digital and physical goods of service providers to our platform. So Krishna, we've changed quite a bit. You know, we started from opening a bank account, which was just one brand. So we you know, we have one brand, called the banks to reach to end consumers and the consumers are kind of categorized as people who need it for financial services. Now, since we've we've put this network out and has scaled to some extent, what we realized is that there's a very large number of people about close about over 50 million people that we have on our network. And starting from the banks were the first set of category of the brands that that got connected to us over the period of the next 12 years. We have over 100 brands who work with us for whom they are a kind of a bridge, which takes their services to the end consumers for them 50 million and you speak of that number, as if it's just chump change. That's what what that's if I have to add to that, I think that's the beauty of our country. It's, you know, if you're able to scale something, there is there is a very large market where in a lot of very, very critical services and you kind of you know, nailed it right up front, whether it is education, health, financial services and many other insurance being one of them, you know, if we are able to create innovative solutions and have the right channels to take to you know, the end consumers there is there is absolute, a massive scale to be achieved.

Krishna Jonnakadla  13:29

Interesting. You know, there are several startups, several companies that had similar goals, but what I have seen is a lot of them have shut shop. Right. It is one thing to start with a set of goals that you want to accomplish, but also to survive and thrive and then, but you are yet here you are 12 years later, achieved a certain degree of scale stayed mostly close to you know, the financial inclusion, the target segment and the consumer base. That journey must not have been easy and is resilience kind of inborn to talk about the journey.

Abhinav Sinha  14:10

As far as you know, Abhishek says this a lot to me that I think resilience is kind of DNA which all most of the finances so most of the Indian entrepreneurs, we don't die. We know how to survive. Good and bad to that. Actually, we don't we I don't think so. We are good at understanding when when should something stop? And the good thing about that is because we don't know when something should stop. We just keep trying. I think, you know, I always tell a lot of entrepreneurs who come in need of a shake on me that three things that I have specifically learned in my 12 years the journey is hard work, patience and perseverance. I think these are three lessons that I will absolutely take away from this journey is that there is I think a lot of people have said this, but I think It takes time in a country like India, I think it takes time. And therefore it is important to have the stomach to kind of wade through the times, which could be very difficult. And as far as hard work and perseverance is concerned, I think, whether it's me or whether it's you in your journey, or anybody else, they would also subscribe to that. It just does not happen without a lot of hard work and perseverance. So I think, three specific words that I get up every day with his hard work, patience and perseverance, and specifically Procore talk about Echo, you know what, you know, because we started in 2007, and the and the entrepreneurial ecosystem, the capital availability ecosystem, and all of that were fairly limited at that point in time. It was quite a struggle. It was quite a struggle, you know, both Abby shake and I exited out of our last startup. So we did have a, you know, unlike 60, whenever shake started really out of absolutely nothing. We still had a little bit of capital. I wouldn't say that we had a lot of capital, but we had a reasonable amount of capital. To start off on the very first day of Eko, but if I'm not mistaken, we probably had, if not three, at least three or four near death experiences where we would absolutely, you know, drying up on in our bank accounts. And looking back at some of those times, I realized that, you know, I think, you know, just to comment on both of you shaking my head, I think we were not very smart when it came to understanding product market fit. I think the the brute desire to make it happen was very strong, and therefore, we kept trying, but to be smart enough to look back and say, Hey, is the product really fit for the market, which is currently present? And because sometimes, one tends to work work a lot hard without a lot of results. And because, you know, the first couple of years, violet has taught us a lot of good lessons for life and to how to run a run a business, but just from a business perspective, even If we would have started ago, maybe four years, five years later, we will probably be where we are, we may have been a completely different trajectory or maybe even bigger, I don't know. But I think apart from those three things of you know, hard work, patience and perseverance, the other message that I give to my product guys myself every day and to other entrepreneurs, is that, you know, have a very sense we need to develop a sense of product market fit. And, you know, if entrepreneurs get better at that, I think, I think the ability to scale and to understand the what it takes to scale will be a lot more sharper, clearer to all of us.

Krishna Jonnakadla  17:41

Is it you know, the number of people while we all love to talk about serial entrepreneurs, I am one when I built the streaming media platform and company called Mango Mobile TV. It took us our own internal effort and an extra Finally went 18 months after starting for that to really come of age, much like what the monetization possibility to a lot of the wallet companies. Yeah. Right. And the number of entrepreneurs who've done one successful startup and then eventually done one more, is barely anything. Yeah. Right. The list is possibly not even 10, maybe Elon Musk and a couple more and the end. And when I did my startup recently, of all the things I you know, there's there's a ton of things that I've learned that I know about product market fit. Sometimes it makes me wonder, no matter how much you know, is it truly ever possible to know product market.

Abhinav Sinha  18:41

 I completely, completely agree with you? I guess that that I think those are, I think it's the flip side of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is about, you know, just the desire, a little bit of irrationality, to go out there to have the desire to do it. And I think product market fit is more of a going the pragmatic way to really understand My only take is I think if as a as a skill set if entrepreneurs can can develop it a little bit better. This is probably my personal experience. I, you know, we would we would do a few things differently, you know, you know, we had, yeah, sorry.

Krishna Jonnakadla  19:15

No, I agree, I think I don't think either of us are suggesting being completely ignorant. So. So on that count, let's talk about that initial journey, the telecom space, I still remember between the late 90s and mid 2000s, the value added services and it there was a huge revolution. And there was a wave, right. All right, you know, rising wave raises all the ships that are on it. Sometimes you're a big ship, sometimes you're a small ship, but stepping outside of that Telecom, how was the initial journey? Because you touched on product market fit, there must have been some assumptions that possibly were belied. Some that came true How would the first you know, formative years?

Abhinav Sinha  20:03

 And let me give you the one particular reason why Abhishek and I. I started the Eko One was that, you know, all through our experience of running 6D, we couldn't explain to our parents what we were building in 6D it was just very difficult for me, you know, they were, you know, for them. It was like, my, my son's not doing a proper job, and what is this about running a startup? So we just struggled to explain that there is something called value added services behind mobile operators, and we build software, which helps them, you know, deliver these services to the end consumers. We just struggled to explain our parents and my mother in particular. So we decided that why don't we do something that it's very easy to explain to them. And one of the reasons we said, we said that, you know, let's open bank account the simple stuff. You know, we can explain this to our parents, we can, if we open bank accounts at retail stores, this is going to be super fantastic. And then we thought that this is very easy to explain to our parents, and it also gave us the opportunity to think of building A brand because, you know, you know in early 2000, mid 2000 I think in one company in India, which was very inspiring by an Indian entrepreneur was added and we were fairly impressed with the way ettl had grown, you know, all the way through the early 2000s and, you know, they were building a fantastic brand we got inspired through them, we learned a lot through what we used to build for mobile operators. And we thought that hey, you know, if he married the the retail outlet where people are getting themselves a SIM card, people are giving proof of ID and proof of address to the retailer, then our opening SIM cards, why can't a very similar process be used to open a bank account and thereafter, similar processes on the technology bit to enable deposit and withdraw? You know, this entire idea of simplification of complex banking operations and putting it on a very, very simple retail? In store was very, very exciting for both of Michigan. And we thought that it genuinely has an opportunity for state, you know, there was, we had an example of MPs are being very successful in Kenya, we had a lot of conversation about financial inclusion all the way, you know, every day in our newspapers. And we thought that, you know, we probably have the solution. We know how this was done in the telecom world. And if you marry the mobile phone, the retail outlet, a very simple process at the retail front, we could genuinely scale this. And so you know, you know, on a personal side, we really wanted to we were we were enthusiastic about building a brand we were enthusiastic about building something which which our parents could understand and feel proud that you know, we were doing it and on the business and the product market fit, we really thought that it's a very, very nice service to build. And what we did not understand what the complexity of opening a bank account, we did not understand You know, the demand side of bank account, you know whether, you know if one particular retail outlet does have the ability to open a bank account, will there be a lot of people walking into that store, wanting to open a bank account? We didn't understand some of those things before starting a kobus definitely started to have a lot of concerted effort to understand it, once we started Eko, but the pure idea of doing it, if you asked me, Krishna, one from the experience of you know, that we learn of doing prepaid return solutions for mobile network operators, the thought the simplification of thought that Vienna mind built when it came to opening up, you know, bank accounts in less than five minutes doing deposit withdrawal transactions for people at a retail store, we just thought would be so much more convenient than going into a bank branch of an ATM. And finally, on the personal side, you know, we generally thought we were younger, we just thought that, you know, why not build a brand that, you know, our parents could also associate themselves with I think all of that kind of came together when we when we thought of starting.

Krishna Jonnakadla  24:04

How much of that was born out eventually?

Abhinav Sinha  24:06

Quite a bit, you know, um, you know, if I further go down the story opening up of bank accounts in India at a retail store was not even allowed at the time when we started Eko. So what we did is that there used to be a bank called Centurion Bank of Punjab, which eventually got acquired by HDFC. We actually went to century of bank of Punjab and we, we shared our idea with them. And because they were a small bank wanting to scale rapidly, they thought that echo was the company that could could give them the next scale that they were desires. And so the bank road to Reserve Bank of India got up, got a pilot permission from the regulators. And we eventually, in February of 2008, if I'm not mistaken, we appointed 30 retail outlets and put them together in Delhi. And we started opening bank accounts at retail stores. And if you ask me, it was Very, very exciting. You know, there were there were not hundreds of people walking to these retail stores. But there were a few would be to buy retail to buy to get themselves bank account and thereafter do deposit withdrawal transactions. So it did it did. We did manage to, to put the idea that we thought about into reality. But you know, there was always a few things that we had to change. You know, for instance, I'll give you one. One example is that the process of account opening that we had thought of, in the very first version, the retailer had to have a desktop to do the transaction to open a bank account, only to realize that in 2008, electricity in Delhi was not something that we could consider for granted. So let's say if we had 30 retail outlets in one locality, and if the electricity goes off for a day, the business was zero because the retailer just couldn't do it. only to realize that if you want to get away from the electricity problem with designed it on the on the mobile phone. But at that point in time, the only option on a mobile phone for us was feature phones. And we had to design an entire feature phone opening process or sorry, a bank account opening process on a feature phone. And there are the product kept evolving, you know, as the market needs and how we understood our challenges in scale. But you don't like I said, you know, we did get get around to opening bank accounts at retail stores. We started on a lap on our desktop, we went on a feature for we had to you know, we designed because consumers at that point in time only had feature phones in their hand. And really the you know, we didn't have the ability to download apps and things like that. On the on the feature phones. We had to design our entire interface of opening up a bank account to doing deposit withdrawal just by dialing of numbers. Because that was the only singular interface that the feature phone gave us, you know, it wasn't like, you know, in 2019 have some really good, fantastic UI UX can be delivered on a feature phone those days are very different.

Krishna Jonnakadla  27:16

That's amazing. So you truly are the pioneers of what we've seen in inclusive banking. I did not know that that Centurion Bank of Punjab had to approach RBI that's very interesting, but along the way, for instance, we have seen we see even today Airtel or PayTM or idea you know, the telecom skin at the scene has drastically changed over the last two three years, but we would have retailers display all these billboards and banners. But if they were agent so to speak, or let's say the an extended arm of the brand, bank, we never saw them saying okay, we are agents for Indian bank or we are agents for Centurion bank, none of that sort really happened ever, did it?

Abhinav Sinha  28:01

It has happened in bits and pieces, you know, for phones, they wouldn't say that they are an agent. But you know, for example, what we scale eventually, you know, for us, what really scaled eventually for us was not bank account opening. But remittances. You know, for instance, the all the entire network that we had put together of retail outlets of intermediaries who were opening bank accounts, eventually, the service that really got scaled up was the urban migrants wanted to send money back home. So we had this face that from a from an extended bank, extended arm of a bank branch, we started to look very similar to a Western Union for domestic money transfers. And so even today, you know, 90% of our intermediaries who I talked about earlier, do remittance either as a as a very large portion of the transaction that they do with echo. And if you walk, walk, walk many streets, not the High High. So, you know the high streets but if you go down the you know, if I says sec c d and downward kind of market markets, you know whether it's in Delhi, Bombay, of all the urban urban cities in India, you would see all these retail outlets say money transfer, and they'll say that you can send money to any bank account in India, they wouldn't come across agents to a State Bank of India, the agents to an idea bank, but you would very often see people having these boards with a money transferred you can send money to any bank company that's a very, very something that you can see in in many, many markets these days.

Krishna Jonnakadla  29:40

That reminds of the neighborhood store, although the neighborhood store today is practically used by everyone as a means to deliver anything and everything he had he the neighborhood store is expected to be a local pharmacy or grocery or fashion store or Amazon outlet or money. transfer is practically a glorified Swiss Army Knife of multiple things. But payments and banking is still valid isn't a given the kind of penetration we have, given the language complexity we have. If you have one user one language, it's possibly easier to deliver. But for instance, yesterday I had to take my parents to Canada bank, you know, Canada bank has pretty slick apps, decent interface, but my parents are about 70 years old. They know how to read and write English. They know how to speak English, but yet, it was a huge learning curve just to get internet banking and for them to read and alert. So these neighborhood stores or these corresponding sort of branches, so to speak, are still valid, but the money transfer aspect of it is kind of restrictive, isn't it?

Abhinav Sinha  30:48

Absolutely. This, this correspondent network to two aspects to this question. One, I would, I would say is that in our scale up, what we realized is that retailers are a fantastic intermediary to do certain kinds of transactions where the you know, the customer coming in and the customer going out, you know, the the UI UX, the time and motion of the transaction has to be really, really short. Because if you really see if you really dissect your experience at a retail store, let's see if I go Bye, bye to you know, go go to a retail store to buy toothpaste, the guy doesn't really engage or upsell me anything else. You know, if I go and say that I need this particular toothpaste you just hand it over to. So retailers typically are very transactional nature. They're not very skilled hard sales guys. And so what we've learned over a period of time is very, very simple. transactions with time and motion, which is sub 30 seconds, those kinds of services can be very easily delivered at a retail store. So things that really scale for us on a retail store is that deposit your cash in transactions, you know people who have cash and want to make a deposit on the into a bank account that scales really fast if they want to do remittance and send money into somebody else's bank account that scales really fast, if they want to use it as an ATM, if they want to take money out of it, that scales really fast. But if you have higher order transactions, you know, let's say if you want to sell a bank account, if you want to sell even a two wheeler insurance, those things typically tend to, you know, not work very simply with a with a retail outlet. And therefore, what we've what we've learned is that while those services are important for the end consumer that that is that is getting targeted, and the end consumer walks into this retail store, but typically, they don't want to buy, buy a two wheeler insurance at a retail store. And even the retail store is not committed enough to tell you all the pros and cons of buying one particular insurance or our mutual fund or or slightly more complex transactions. So what we've realized is that all the categories of services that you and I consume is valid for the 50 million consumers that equity markets and the next 500 million that a coke decides to target. All those categories are valid categories. However, retail outlet and the next door Kirana store may not be the ideal intermediary for all of those categories. Some categories just fly over these gents, but some don't. And therefore, alternative categories like you know, certain categories fly really, really well with retired government server and something to do with housewives. And if you keep dissecting the different channels that are possible, they're better channels on which categories flow much faster. So so that's been our learning over the last 12 years in terms of how you create different categories and different channels to reach out to the same set of consumers.

Krishna Jonnakadla  33:46

Let's switch tracks a bit. You graduated in 2003. 2007 Eko, how has the personal journey been all along between from 6D to Eko.

Abhinav Sinha  33:56

Absolutely you know, it's been I wouldn't trade it for anything. is so I passed out from college in 2003. Absolutely with the you know, a lot of people who tend to ask question like are entrepreneurs born around entrepreneurs made for sure, as far as my case is concerned, I'm definitely not an entrepreneur born. And so I worked for about a year and a half at Oracle. And for me luckily for me, 6D was happening at a very close proximity of Michigan started it some of very close friends of mine and actually jumped ship and and joined 60 months before I did, and not because a big shake was calling me to join 6D for some of my very close friends were joined 6D we're actually asking me to, to quit Oracle and join 6D and I was the youngest in the family. And my parents weren't putting a lot of pressure on me to kind of contribute back financially or anything like that. And as a result of which I think there was a little bit of flexibility that my parents gave me, the fact that I was The youngest in the family that kind of help. Abhishek was already doing this. I think all of that kind of came together very, very, very nicely for me. My friends were there, they were eager, they were enjoying their time and they were eager, you know, eager for me to join as well. And I kind of jumped in in 2005 the next, you know, the first six months of 6D was very difficult, you know, I was coming from a, from an experience of working for Oracle, you know, right. You know, we were, you know, the experience the work culture, the processes the way the organization treated its employees were absolutely world class plus, when it came to Oracle way back in 2003 to 2005. You know, it took it took a lot of unlearning it a lot of unlearning for me in the first six months of 16 to kind of, you know, not to get unused to from the ways in which Oracle worked and how it treated us when we used to work there to get used to, you know, inviting one's own desk. coding, coding day in day out, there were no in time zone No, our time was never finished. It wasn't that we had managers were allocating work, we had to find work for ourselves and just continue doing it. I think that change was fairly difficult for me in the first six months, but once I started to get used to it, and when I started to enjoy it, I think the next one and a half years that I spent with 60 was was it was absolutely beautiful lot of learning. You know, just the experience of selling to your client. Being the sales guy being the pre sales guy, being the coder being the tester, then go back and deploy the solution. You know, when you do all of these things, I think teaches you a lot of stuff. And I think that that gave me in a little bit of success that we tasted with deploying some of these solutions and different mobile network operators gave me the confidence that you know You know, as individuals, we could do a lot more than what you probably doing. And that probably gave me the confidence along with appreciate to, you know, say that, you know, let's do it once more once more. So right from 2003, you know, when one comes out of college had a fantastic experience working for Oracle, you know, it was really the one of the top companies to work for way back in early 2000. And then experiencing fairly tough times, you know, no money, money running out of echo v. e guys not getting salary for months together, you know, swiping a personal credit card for expenses for 6D and all sorts of things and finding it very difficult to go get from one day to the next day financially. But at the same time, absolutely a roller coaster experience on the website when we were building these solutions and deploying to mobile network operators. Absolutely a gem fun experience.

Krishna Jonnakadla  37:55

You really touched a key topic. You know, that's close to my heart. Given the fact that I began my initial days of my career here and was in the US for a significant amount of time, I tend to contrast the fact that lakhs of people who are actually employed in companies like Oracle, Accenture, all the it and the extended IT services, business, to a great extent, do not understand the dynamics of that business. Right. So it's it's a huge currency and labor arbitrage that is actually enabling us get access to an a and a culture and a product ecosystem and a customer ecosystem that will already stabilized, which is why so when you're working for Oracle, Larry Ellison and Oracle has already gone through a journey. they've established a market. They've done a lot of that. And today, when you build a startup, a lot of younger people tend to take a lot of those things for granted. They don't understand Many of them, especially the ones that come from IT services, do not understand what it takes to earn that dollar. They, many of them are, have very rarely met a consumer. That scene is slowly changing. But I wish you know, there were more people like you who stepped out of the IT services world and then went out to do a drastic contrast and say, Hey, you know what, I took a lot of things for granted because there is $1 revenue that's coming from somewhere else, I have to be in for the customer to really create value.

Abhinav Sinha  39:29

 You know, I remember fourth project that we did on the on the prepaid recharge product that I spoke about, you know, it was Abhishek and some of Abhishek's and some of our seniors and 60 who kind of made the deal happened. And the god the customer in the really my personal experience in that particular case was that we build the product. You know, I remember we had no product we committed committed to the customer that will have an entire recharge platform built in 21 days and Just the experience of continuous coding. For me, maybe we're a gang of about two or three guys who just coded endlessly for 21 days and built an entire recharge platform and to have deployed it on the 25th 28th day was a was a fantastic experience just to do that and shutter so short period of time, it would have been completely unimaginable. In my earlier experience of working in Oracle, and from the second customer onwards, I remember telling my founders in 6D that hey, you know, now I have built the product I have launched the product. I know more about this product that anybody else, why don't you let me stand in front of the customer and I'm going to get you a new customer. And I think, you know, just the experience of you know, pitching and pitching to a new customer, you know, failing in it and then subsequently succeeding in it. building out building it out, launching it, looking at bugs make looking at downtimes I think Listening to one one, go through that experience. How does one learn how to have to run one startup? I don't know if there's any other way.

Krishna Jonnakadla  41:09

No, I agree. I agree. Let's talk about the family angle Abhishek  is your brother?

Abhinav Sinha  41:15

Yes. Abhsihek is four years elder to me.

Krishna Jonnakadla  41:17

Working with family is a binary equation. Right? So you you either either hit it off, or you realize that you possibly are not made to work with each other. How's that journey been? Were you always tight as brothers before you started? And did that relationship help? Or did the relationship get more solid once you came together. Talk about that in the conversation.

Abhinav Sinha  41:43

Krishna one Abhsihek is elder to me, so you know, if you have a four year old sibling, you'll realize that you know four years is a very, very big difference between two buildings. So Abhishek and I we were he was really too big for me to kind of interact, whether it was in the school days or days, we didn't have common friends, nothing really to share, apart from the interviews to stay in one room and things and things like that, but, you know, four years was a fairly big difference between the two of us. And as as a result of which we didn't really share a lot until I think, you know, we came together in 6D like I mentioned, you know, mind joining off 6D was not really because of Abhishek, you know, some of my very close friends were working in 6D they were having a fantastic time and they said that, you know, why don't we do a college to point off let's just just why don't you jump ship glow leave Oracle was there in Oracle anyways, why don't you just come join 6D we'll have a good time together. And that was really how much I valuated joining 6D and because I was youngest to probably I didn't have anything more to think about and I said that you know, even if it doesn't work out, what the hell we will figure out something and it wasn't really a shame that was pushing me to join 6D my friends who got me to, but I guess you know, when you know when it started to get difficult in 6D You know, when we had to really put our head Together, we really had to find ways to survive and grow is when, you know, Abhishek and I had started to get opportunity to working together in you know, in 6D also this particular product of prepare recharge was a very fantastic one very fascinating experience to develop and to launch and proceed scale because the entire world if I, you know, all the all the developing economies, whether it was the Middle East, Southeast Asia, India in particular, you know, we had lead from all of these these countries and continents, and we could see that there is a very, very huge demand for this particular product. And because the, you know, I was kind of very closely working on this product, and Abby shake was the CEO. He ended up spending a lot of time in this product, you know, which had the potential to scale and scale rapidly for 6D which actually led to both Abhishek and I spending a lot of time thinking, thinking about this product of how different How are the different ways this product could scale what are the different use cases want to be And what one realized was that this really had unlimited potential. And I guess, you know, when we started to work together more on the product side, and eventually we kind of, you know, both exited from six B and we spent six months, you know, between level 6D. And starting starting echo is really one of the times, you know, where we spent a lot of time, probably first time in our lives where we were conceptualizing and thinking of a product together. But, you know, that was great. You know, I think that kind of gave us the initial confidence that the two of us can go out together and kind of do it. But I think the real test started, you know, post 2009 in all the 2009 all the way to 2014 was very, very difficult, you know, you know, policy was changing. regulations were changing. The world was changing from feature phone to smartphone so we kind of missed the smartphone bust quickly because you know, we designed we put in a lot of effort to build for feature for By the time we were starting to scale, the technology stack had changed pretty rapidly for us. So you know, why we were kind of, you know, so So 2009-2014 was very, very difficult for echo and, and as co founders, we had to work together. We saw lots of ups and downs, we, you know, we had days where one of us was, was really down and out, and the other one had to stand up. But at times, we were the reason for the other one to, to feel really horrible about themselves. But I think the fact that by the time you hit hitting these tough years, some of the foundation work, you know, of thinking and conceptualizing the product together, opening starting echo together, doing the first couple of years together, I think gave us a certain amount of foundation on which we could build and keep trusting each other for the next three, four years, which are very, very difficult. I think, you know, this journey is a continuous journey as long as both Abhishek and I continue to run Eko. I think the days, one tends to see different cycles, you know, I typically see that technologies and solution that we built typically have a life cycle of three years these days. And so any strategy that you kind of deploy for scale, it works for three years, and then you have a kind of a tough period for six, eight months, and then you have to regroup. And then you have to start planning again for the next on the scale and things like that. I think both Abhishek and I have started to appreciate the cycle of growth. We started to appreciate what each one of us can do. And we've started to appreciate how we complement OR NOT complementing each other. And I think it is, I haven't met a lot of founders who have very quickly found the ways of working together. But it did take us a little bit of time. I think being brothers, you know, probably gave us the foundation to work together but also probably took, you know, it was our personal journeys that it took a little bit more time for us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both of us. For us to use that to use that as a strength for us to you know, use it for the growth of echo. So quite a bit, quite a bit of circles of up and down. But if I have to sum it up, we've seen the 12 years together. We've seen we've seen times where echo did not grow up together seen the time where we kind of did 10 x in a year. So I think now we appreciate the the the cycle of growth for a particular business. You started to appreciate new trends coming in, we started to appreciate how to kind of get on to different trends in the growing pains that are happening on the technology side, how do I data and I think you're more conscious about it. We are more ready for it. We understand each other far better than what we probably did about 12 years back. And I think we are smarter today in using using ourselves. In a far better manner than probably we did about 10 years back, I think we understand each other a lot better today than then then the past.

Krishna Jonnakadla  48:07

Very mature. Let's talk about Bill Gates. How did that happen? Is he still associated with Eko?

Abhinav Sinha  48:13

 I wish but Bill Gates is not associated with Eko at this point this point in time. Broadly, you know, the reason why we both get the fantastic opportunity of hosting it was that Gates Foundation had started to do and continues to do a lot of work in the space of financial inclusion in many of the parts of the world. And they were looking for innovative startups who were trying to solve this problem in a very different way. And we were in touch with a few people who were then in touch with the Gates Foundation. And they kind of you know, some of the people that we knew kind of put us in front of the Gates Foundation saying that you know, if you want to meet an innovative company trying to crack open the problem of financial inclusion, Eko's approach is probably the approach that is going to scale rapidly. And that that reference that we got from you know Business Institute the this organization which is part of World Bank it's called see gap consultative group for assisting the poor we can use to work with them and see gap very closely because they're part of the World Bank they work very closely with the Gates Foundation. So, so if I remember correctly, the you know, our friends from Sega kind of gave a good reference of echo to the Gates Foundation. And then the Gates Foundation people you know, put echo on Bill Gates itinerary when he was here in India. And it was a you know, it was a very proud moment for us to be amongst, I don't know whether if he visited anybody else during that particular visit, but was a very proud moment to have been selected. We had I think, little close to two hours that Bill Gates spent with, spent with us in echoes office very close to them in automatic He also accompanied some of our colleagues to a retail outlet, you know, listened to us very patiently and how we were trying to open bank accounts at a retail outlet there. And he very, very greatly appreciated the way we were trying to solve this problem. So it was a very fantastic experience to have both of them.

Krishna Jonnakadla  50:18

Did he make an investment?

Abhinav Sinha  50:20

Gates Foundation thereafter did give us a grant

Krishna Jonnakadla  50:23

Okay, so 15 million unique users 12 years, no mean accomplishment. There must have been many touching moments. What are some of the touching moments and the things that sort of, you know, tug at your heart for a long time?

Abhinav Sinha  50:41

 I think one incident that happened, I'll share which happened I think in 2011, what happened was that the business was was growing in we had a phase of of rapid growth in 2011. But you know, because we were kind of service providers to the bank, our revenues, we had really bad Ad receivable cycles with State Bank of India and over five crore of our revenue was stuck at Reserve Bank of India. And after lot of kind of meeting with those guys, you know, we're just trying to get the money we was we were just struggling to get the money out of State Bank of India and as a result of it one day, we just ran out of money and we just had to switch off the servers. We just decided, hey, we just can't can't lose in on getting money difficult to pay. So we just decided, hey, just switch off one fine day we came to our office and we said that you know, there's no other way and we decided to pull the plug. And we had a not very sure but we must have had maybe close to about 5000 retail outlets to us to work with them in 2011. And within a couple of our there were close to 100 retail outlets, retailers standing outside our office, actually when we closed our server you know I remember Abhishek telling me that you know, we should not go back home We should just sit here and do our usual work sitting in our office. It was a very good advice because in about an hour or two hours time to look about hundred retail outlets with sticks in their hand, all standing in front of our office asking them Why did we shut the service. And, you know, as any mob getting together, we had a similar experience there for about the first 3040 minutes they were not listening to us. They were kind of thinking that we have run away with their some some money or some something like that we will not have mistrust for the first 3040 minutes. But when we started to explain to them that we really had cash flow issues, and we, you know, one of the elderly retailers told us that you know, your service is good, that don't shut it down. Why don't you take money from us, take money from us, but continue to run your company because your company's doing good job. And I remember this senior, you know, elderly Retailers suggesting that some of the retailers would not have the same opinion actually walked walked out of the meeting. But most of them stayed back. And it was they told us that you know, why don't you charge us a security deposit? So this is the retailers together suggesting Eko that why don't you charge us a refundable security deposit the fairly facts. We give you the money, take this money, pay your vendors and get the service backup. And you don't, we had no other option but to do that, because because the bank was not giving us our revenues. And so we charged the retailer's refundable money. They gave us money. And we were back up in about a day or two. And so it was a very interesting experience where some of our partners actually told us that, you know, the work that we were doing was good. We were we must have been a team of about 30, 40 people at that point in time. We were fairly scared because, you know, we were about three or four years into running of echo. We didn't want it to shut down. We were struggling to get money out of a bank of our bank. We have no other option but to pull the plug. Eventually we did. I think a very good suggestion from a shake was that we shouldn't just put locks on our office and go back home. But let's just stay here. You know, I think maybe he had an intuitive sense that people would would turn up in all of it. That's what happened for about 30, 40 minutes. They just did not listen to us or whatever we were telling our side of the story, but eventually they start with us. And, you know, we would have never imagined that there was an opportunity to charge them to run our company. But eventually, that is exactly what we ended up doing the chart. They gave us the month in which we will back up and eventually I don't I don't even recall right now, whether it was another 30, 40 days ago, when did we actually get our money's back from State Bank of India. But, you know, we were honest to the work that we were doing, we were honest and very transparent in the problem that we're having. And people who just love to partner with us to do the business actually. came came and rescued us was very, very difficult experience that we had way back then.

Krishna Jonnakadla  55:04

It's one of those things, isn't it? They say, if you want to find out how important or how impactful you are as a service as a product be unavailable for some time and see who shows up and what to say. Yeah, absolutely. And in this case, a lot of these guys were earning a stream of income from the services and support system that you guys had created a. It was an amazing instinctive call from Abhishek's side.

Abhinav Sinha  55:32

 Absolutely. Very, very good call.

Krishna Jonnakadla  55:35

 So we've chatted for over an hour. couple more questions. One, what have been some bad calls that you all made that you thought was going to bear out? But that did.

Abhinav Sinha  55:49

I think two things that I remember very, very clearly, is that when Android came in, you know, we just thought that it would take a very long time for our Based on our customer base to adopt on Android, I think it was one of the back one of the really bad calls that we made. We just thought that sure it's there, but it's going to take a little bit more time. And as a result of which we continue to develop, and push our feature phone solution for a very long time that we shouldn't have, I think, you know, it really delayed our learning when it come came to adoption of smartphones and all the capability that a smartphone has. And I think we will we were late to that. I think the second thing that we were, you know that that was a bad call from our side, is that when the wallet regulations came in, you know, we were latched on to a regulation which is called the business correspondent regulation which which had, which had come into being in 2006. And because we started a company in 2007, we latched onto a regulation called the business correspondent regulation. And when the wallet regulation finally eventually came in in 2011 12, it was obviously one of the initial regulations of the wall. We came in and again, we said, Hey, we probably want a better regulation than the wallet regulation, what the hell, we don't really need to switch from a business correspondent regulation to over who and I think these two poles of not realizing, you know, the the massive shift in the tech side that was happening from a feature phone to a smartphone. And the other was a mistake on the regulatory call that, you know, that we should have, we should have been, you know, we were already doing timidness. You know, we should have been actually one of the first guys to apply for the wallet regulation. So while we did a lot of work in shaping the business correspondent regulations, you know, we were not very fast when it came to adoption of the wallet regulation, we and by the time we kind of woke up to that, there was a billion dollar company already created. And over I think, all that trains, I could say that, you know, we just missed and it took a while to learn from it and kind of, you know, learn to understand where it was to enter and then you Mentally scale like oh, in the manner that we've managed to, but it was a lot of soul searching that we must must have been tough. And I'm sure it still is tough to rationalize with that. Absolutely. I often tell me that it's, it's a mistake, which has caused him to go $15 billion in valuation. So let's not mix.

Krishna Jonnakadla  58:21

Well, hey, I, I think to be fair, these are not nobody has a crystal ball. I remember I was in the US when the iPhone was launched. If I I don't know if Steve Jobs wasn't behind it if everybody would have still thought it was as dramatic because used to you already had the palm tree or the iPhone, which which was a touch phone, which was quite popular amongst business users. And when Android launched, I'm not sure if you're familiar with this theory called theory of disruption by Clayton Christensen, when an upstart actually comes into an ecosystem and challenges an existing player usually They're not as good. They are rudimentary. They have a lot of rough edges. And that's how Android was in the beginning of it. And I don't think even Larry Page or any of them, even foresaw, you know, Andy Rubin himself was working for several years on that, before they realize that iPhone was going to be a Google killer if they didn't do anything funny that Microsoft didn't see that writing on the wall back then. Right. But those were tough. Very, very tough calls to make. Even the wallet regulation, I don't know. Personally, I feel finance, financial services and FinTech in India is evolving so rapidly. Every time a change happens, it is creating a new set of winners and losers. And fortunes do not stay the same, right? Especially in an industry that shifts so quickly so you have the ncci wallets had their demonetization moment and then after that, you know BTM was all the rage. And then now phone pay and Google pay. That chart seems to be shifting every six months every one year. But I but at the end, but at the end of it or maybe at the core of it is learning to survive, isn't it to wait for one more door to open? Absolutely. I think it's commendable what you guys have done. And the beauty of it is the market that you guys have covered the rural market the unbanked the inclusive market is still largely untapped. From 48 crore people on the internet. That number is going to jump to 67 crores shortly a lot of them are going to come from there. You know, the best is yet to come is I'm sure you share the same feeling as I completely completely up you know, it's been a fantastic conversation. over an hour. We've enjoyed speaking with you. Kudos to all that you've done. We know that the startup ecosystem many times is a survival game first and then a thriving game later. You guys have seen both ends of the cycle. Set of survival and the thriving aspect many times and I'm sure the best is yet to come. We wish you the very best. Before we wrap up any closing comments from your side?

Abhinav Sinha  1:01:09

 Krishna, thanks a lot for inviting me for this conversation. I just I love the one hour that we spent together chatting about talking about the journey of spent in the last 12 years. Thank you so much for having me on the show.

Krishna Jonnakadla  1:01:22

Thank you Abhinav.

Nida Sahar  1:01:23

hope you enjoyed this story. If this story made a difference to you tell us by leaving a comment on the website or our social media channels. Help us spread the love by subscribing liking and sharing our show. We welcome speaker suggestions and collaborations write to me at heythere@maharajasofscale.com.