Monday, 6 June 2016

Abhishek Shankar - The Man Who Is Working To Get A Billion Indians Free Internet!

IIT -Chennai educated engineer Abhishek Shankar is the man behind the TOI app Alive which garnered 2 million downloads on the first day of its launch! A Mensa 100 percentiler which just 0.01% of the world’s population cracks, Abhishek spent a large part of his childhood in Bihar. Like every other engineer, he was inclined to do something path-breaking but was unclear about his passion. Abhishek adds “Some very wise man said ‘Before building a startup, build your passion’. Being unsure of what I wanted to do or was passionate about turned out to be a blessing as that triggered the constant search in me to delve deeper into myself. So I started experimenting, though at the outset there were some really disastrous ones like the Hospitality Management college which I started in 2005. I failed miserably in understanding the finances, specially the creature called "cash flow”! I kept on messing with all the unknowns". Abhishek then moved to another unfamiliar terrain in 2008 - e-tutoring. In the course for his quest for the unknown and the unrealised, his search deepened and somewhere around 2009, the realisation of deep technology as a tool to disrupt any sector dawned on him. With India’s then expanding mobile revolution, Abhishek zeroed in on working on the mobile business space. He shares “In early 2010, I started working on augmented reality which could be one great consumer technology which would break traditional advertising. I formally started Adstuck in Jan 2012 and Kundan joined to help me commercialise the same. This was the time when Ritesh Malik joined in”. The first year of hard work on Alive got them into the Limca book of Records for the record breaking downloads in just one day of the Alive app launch.
Within the next 14 months, they added a mind-boggling 231 brands! “This was the result of the passion and  search I embarked on five years prior to that”, Abhishek reveals. Adstuck pivoted to ReverseData after selling Alive to Times of India and built one of the only product success stories of the country.
About Adstuck.
At Adstuck, Abhishek looks after technology and product development while his partner Kundan looks after the sales and alliances. The team also comprises Anumeha who looks into the operations and finances, and Shalvi who handles digital marketing and data analytics, and also a dedicated team of 32 people.
Adstuck develops apps, widgets, tools which solve the problem of internet affordability. It strives to bring a billion people on internet and give them mobile and web experiences which never existed. Abhishek says “Adstuck brings people in the centre of any technology and business model. We are technology people and believe that we can eliminate inefficiencies of markets and tools and make way for brands to reach their users and at the same time help users get free internet. After the vision search and augmented reality success of Alive and Areal, we wanted to pivot into something which was much more meaningful, pervasive and genuinely solved one of the toughest problems for an emerging country like India - internet affordability and availability. Our products Data Free Locker and Armor Browser help get internet free for browsing on the web and mobile. This is epic because browser and these apps have been sucking data in the form of ads at the user’s expense without considering the fact that for a country like India, affordability is an issue for 95 % of the people”.
Future Plans vis-a-vis Adstuck.
Adstuck has a 10 year plan to destroy the digital divide wherein they aim to develop and explore technologies which will yield products and products which in turn will give way to platforms. Currently they have one product that has crossed to be a platform - ReverseData which is available on over 4 million smartphones. It will be rolled as a standard device feature for Indian smartphones from August onwards. Their other products like Armor locker, Browser and Launcher are still at a product level.
Their business goal is to start with digital inclusion and move to capacity building and finally helping in financial inclusion. “The challenge of course is to do all this profitably” Abhishek smiles. The third phase of the plan involves taking ReverseData to villages. Adstuck has also developed a complete infrastructure to take internet to rural areas by operating in the white space spectrum.
The Alive App And Its Sale To TOI, Bahrain Times and Go Live.
Alive was an augmented reality app which gave a ground breaking revolution to the  print industry by connecting the offline and online worlds.  Abhishek adds “It was an effort of 1.5 years on first honing the technology which almost defied some of the cutting edge research in computer vision. A lot of my IIT professors whom I showed were surprised to see the boundaries I was pushing. After technology came the hard work on commercialisation. We had to choose a sector to disrupt which was waiting for a saviour. We found the print industry to be that ideal space as the number of newspaper readers were/are declining by the day. Then came the distribution part; we had to convince a partner that we would redefine the way people read newspapers in times to come. We were fortunate to have cracked 3 different partners in the 3 biggest geographies - ‘Go Live’ in Middle East which worked with Bahrain Times, ‘Areal’ in Malaysia and ‘Alive’ in India with Times of India”. Alive redefined availability of news and entertainment and became the number one app almost instantly!
Challenges In Business.
Abhishek opines “In our business which involves giving people something for free, everything is a challenge - from technology to business model, distribution, communication and making the world believe that there is a solution for the world’s toughest problems!  Anything that is free is often viewed with suspicion or assumed to have no value. Convincing people that it’s free and good was a big big challenge but it was just a matter of time that people found it to be too good to be true. Also convincing brands that it was better than existing channels to build businesses was a herculean task!”. “There was resistance from stakeholders at times too and of course from the industry people themselves!”.
Conditions Of Business In India.
Abhishek opines that about doing business in India is a little different. He feels looking for customers who are willing  to try a product or service free of cost is easy but it is extremely difficult to make them buy the same thing unless enough reasons are provided to warrant that purchase. Abhishek adds “Hence, awareness and communication are more important than merely luring a customer with deep discounts for a first time purchase”.
The India Growth Story And Its Impact On Startups.
Abhishek feels that the India story is like a fairy tale till now and though different from US, China or Israel, it incorporates a little bit of all of them. He opines “Capital flow, investor confidence and huge market which is growing led us to start with Internet based services. E-commerce, O2O and a few other sectors saw real progress. Most of the startups are looking for consumers through internet which ironically itself is lacking. More than 60 percent of the world’s population remains offline. Without removing crucial deterrents to internet adoption, little will change—and more than 4 billion people may be left behind. Unfortunately, 80% of these disconnected live in India and the South East Asian countries. We want to get them connected. We want them to have free access to mobile Internet. We have reached 2.1% disconnected people in India and aim to take it to 80% by 2018”. “I believe in the collective work of infrastructure sharing; this is critical to build a market which currently thrives on discounts. Give them something they need and will use to help the markets grow. The offline and most of the online population faces barriers to internet adoption spanning four categories - incentives, low incomes and affordability, user capability and infrastructure”. Abhishek feels that all these four need to be addressed to be in the same league as China, Israel or even the United States.
His New Internet Venture Which Aims To Connect 1 Billion People.
Abhishek is now working on his new venture which aims to increase the Internet usage and access by giving free Internet to people. He says “ We started working on the so-called Utopian reality, an almost crazy proposition! India and the 20 emerging markets are facing a huge digital divide. Nearly 95% people can’t afford even 1 GB of Internet on month-on-month basis. India’s 300 million consumers are using just 95 MB internet per month. Only the top 3%  are in a position to use more than 1 GB. This is very skewed because in every generation, if the tools of progress are so unevenly distributed then we cannot expect the country and the economy to grow evenly. Every 10% increase in internet access increases the GDP by more than 1.3%. It was not going to happen if we did not have the revolutionary product -  ReverseData which will sit inside every phone to judge internet spent and make brands pay for usage if they want people to use theirs. This meant that Amazon can give you 100 MB if you use 20 MB inside Amazon app and ReverseData will act as a judge and disburser of data once you do what was required”.
After solving the problem of people who cannot access Internet, Adstuck wanted to solve the problem of existing internet users. Adstuck started with a browser which is a gateway to the Internet for anybody on mobile and computers. They developed Armor browser through which one can get free internet access. By being light and fast and blocking all the different kinds of tracking and ads, it exponentially improves user experience. They also built the Armor locker and the Armor Launcher to further improve time on mobile. Armor Browsers, Locker and Launcher are utility apps which enhance experiences on the web and mobile. Abhishek elaborates “Since time immemorial we have been using browsers which are basic in nature like Chrome or Firefox. The first thing we did was to make websites faster. Second was to make them totally safe and that involved checking a lot of websites for malwares. And thirdly, we wanted to make user experience ad-free and if the websites wanted to display ads they would have to pay the user with internet. Apart from this Armor is different in anonymity. Your web experience will be proxied so that you cannot be tracked without your permission. All these features cannot be supported by companies which strive on ad-based model. But for us,people are at the centre of all the features we have in our browser, locker and launchers”.
Figures and Facts.
Adstuck had a revenue of 1 million dollars last financial year and made a profit of 50%! They are adding 21 thousand users daily and currently have 4 million users. They hope to reach the 5 million figure by August this year. Apart from business, they are building a non-profit association with some industry people to take mobility and technology to rural areas.
“We will not stop till every Indian gets 500 MB data free for improving his economic and social condition and find revolutionary methods to earn livelihoods. We will keep killing the digital divide”, Abhishek sums up.
Mushrooming Of Startups.
“Anything which mushrooms on its own is good,especially positive things. People are taking risks and willing to embark on tougher paths and abandon their comfort zone. This is a fantastic thing to be happening”.
Abhishek is upbeat about anything which will use Internet for solving problems and also about core tech products which are solving some real problems like EV, seawater desalination machine etc.
Abhishek is inspired by many people and one amongst them is one of the IIT -Chennai professors Mr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala. He says fondly of him “I had the privilege to be in the company of Mr. Jhunjhunwala who works tirelessly for the betterment of society through science. His vision and hard work inspires me every day. Amongst entrepreneurs, Elon Musk inspires me to the core. It really fires me up when I hear that he used to sleep in a sleeping bag at the Tesla factory floor before Model X was completely bug free”.
“I have two mentors in my family who shaped my skills which made me what I am today. I learned entrepreneurship from my mother who encouraged me lovingly even when I made mistakes. From childhood, my mother told me to pursue excellence and solve problems which she demonstrated by leading. I idolise my brother in law’s values.; he is an example of a life well lived and how one can build anything with sheer passion”.
Personal Life And Love.
Abhishek is an avid reader and loves everything from fiction to science to poetry and even  journals. He is a sports lover and a keen follower; he also makes time to play with his colleagues.
He is all set to marry his fiancee Shalvi who he very warmly shares left her cushy job at Mu sigma to help build Adstuck stronger in data analytics and digital marketing. Abhishek feels that when one has family support, it helps maintain sanity in the madness of startups and makes life easier.
Advice To Aspiring Entrepreneurs.
Abhishek believes that obsession and not mere passion, desire nor dreams are enough. He adds “The second thing is sustenance. If you can survive by being low on cost, team and emotion, then you shall see the sunrise some day”. “The third thing and most important thing is humility. Rejections and doubts will originate from within oneself as well from outside sources; hence humility is necessary. Building businesses which are long term is a humbling experience. Don’t attempt to enter this world if you are too clean to get dirty..”. 

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