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Dropout MIT innovator rolls Craigslist and WhatsApp into one app for local shopping in India

December.16.2014 0 Comments

Deepak-RavindranAt 17, he started a web design company. At 19, he dropped out of engineering college to join an accelerator program at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad. At 22, he built an offline search engine called SMSGyan, which allows its 120 million users to text any question and get answers immediately, without the luxury of internet on their mobile phones. By 23, he was an angel investor, an MIT Top innovator under 35, and had kicked off Startup Village in Kerala, an incubator program that propelled Kochi into becoming one of the top startup hubs in India.

A year-and-a-half later, his next venture, another app that gets your queries answered, but this time targeted at the US market, raised seed funding from 500 Startups and other angel investors.

That’s Deepak Ravindran for you.

At 26, he gave away the source code of his offline network, which was profitable from day one, and started up all over again. Ravindran’s two-month-old Lookup – a Craiglist cum WhatsApp for local businesses – just raised a second dose of US$100,000 in seed funding. He had earlier got US$166,000 from tech billionaire Kris Gopalakrishnan, co-founder of Indian IT bellwether Infosys.

Before we tell you all about Lookup and what makes it tick, let’s go back to where it all began for its founder.

An eye for unique local problems
Ravindran grew up in Thrissur, Kerala, a typical old town in the south of India, where you buy everything you need from small local shops, be it groceries, electronics, medicine, or clothes. But here’s the twist: Indian towns are small only in the geographical sense. In terms of population, they could be on par with European cities. Thrissur, for instance, has as many people as St. Louis in the US.

Apart from population density, the striking feature of these Indian towns are their shops round the corner. Little wonder that India has the highest shop density in the world with over 11 retail outlets for every 1,000 people.

If you grow up in a place like that and you have an entrepreneurial bent of mind, then you start noticing some uniquely local problems to solve that would be very difficult for any outsider to spot.

One problem is that most of these retail outlets are very small, and may not have the thing you want. You have to be quite lucky to find it in the first shop you go to. It can take doing a round of half a dozen local pharmacies to get you a strip of pills a specialist doctor prescribed; the sleek new mobile phone you wanted to touch and feel before buying might be available in every other color but the one you wanted. This is a problem not just in small towns, but even a tech-savvy city like Bangalore, where people may have got used to shopping in malls or ecommerce sites but still run to the local drugstore for stomach flu pills or the BP medication that just ran out.

What if a message sent before you set out for a shop told you if the pharmacy has that pill in stock or not? Or what if you can take a picture of the doctor’s prescription with your phone and send it to a nearby shop? And communicate with them without sharing any confidential data like your phone number?

That’s what you get with Lookup, an instant messaging app that connects you to local businesses. It lists businesses, restaurants, and even police stations – but unlike Craigslist or JustDial which would give you a number to dial, Lookup lets you shoot off a message without leaving the app. And the recipient store or restaurant, which also has Lookup on its mobile device, can respond instantly. And, just to ensure it happens, Lookup even has a call centre tracking the messages.

You can find prices and availability of products or services, book appointments, or make reservations at restaurants in your locality with Lookup. You can even chat with the police.

It’s just been two weeks since the app went live in Bangalore and already has over 2,000 daily active users. “Our guarantee is that you get answers within five minutes. We do this by employing dedicated people for handling your request. Lookup’s call center fields your responses, calls up stores, and types answers back to you in real-time. No calling, no waiting,” Ravindran tells Tech in Asia.

If you send a message late at night when the outlet is shut, you will get a response in the morning, as soon as its shutters open.

Currently, Lookup receives over 10,000 messages daily and most of them are answered by its in-house call center team. The top three queries so far have been for reservations, product pricing and availability, and appointments.

Ravindran is planning to monetize Lookup only next year. A monthly or yearly payment model for shopkeepers is the rough plan in mind.

A natural transition
Lookup is a natural offshoot of Ravindran’s earlier startup, Quest. It was a question-and-answer app for the US market with inbuilt geotagging to help users find others nearby who can answer questions. Ravindran built it with his friend Mohammed Hisamuddin – one of his college mates who co-founded Innoz, the startup behind the SMSGyan app.

Quest raised seed funding from 500 Startups and other angel investors in January this year. “Unfortunately, Quest was not able to gain significant market share in the US, where there are a few players in this space like Jelly, Quora, etc,” says Ravindran.

Lookup was the successor. It was born from the usage pattern that Ravindran observed while working on Quest. A lot of the queries on Quest were related to local businesses. Some even got responses from those running the outlets. “We did some research on how people talk to local businesses, and to our surprise, found that there was no central and easy to use service that solved this problem. Most of the people were still using the traditional way of calling the stores. This is a hugely untapped market,” says Ravindran.

That’s when he decided to return to India, where the retail market is poised to hit US$700 billion by 2015, and kickoff Lookup.

Lookup has no direct competitor in India right now though there is a similar service in the US in the form of Path’s Place Messaging.

Ravindran’s tech team at Lookup includes a few of the early members of Quest and the earlier venture Innoz, which had created the SMSGyan app as an answering service for curious souls. Lookup also acqui-hired RecommerceHub, a startup that sold refurbished electronic devices. Anup Mohan, co-founder of Flamingos Media, which was acquired by Kreata Global Digital Media Service in December last year, is Lookup’s chief marketing officer. Mohan was also part of Innoz.

Moving with the times
Last week, in a surprising move, Innoz gave away the source code of SMSGyan for free via SMSGyan was the first app that Ravindran built with his friends from college, Mohammed Hisamuddin, Ashwin Nath, and Abhinav Sree. Together, they co-founded Innoz in September 2008.

They had spent more than five years working on Innoz, and at last count, over two billion queries were answered on the app. Innoz was monetized through cellular subscription, one rupee per query. It has a subscriptions model of INR 30 (US$0.48) a month. The venture was, therefore, profitable from day one.

Yet, the writing was on the wall for Innoz in India. A slew of low-cost smartphones have been spurring Indians to ditch their feature phones. And SMS-based services were getting ditched alongside.

Ravindran and his co-founders at Innoz believed that their product was worth salvaging and so they looked at other markets. Telecoms providers in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Kenya are already on board.

But now with Lookup, Ravindran says, the focus is back on India and other developing markets. At present, the app has over 200 verified shops that customers can directly chat with, and is adding more every day. Lookup will be integrating payments and a calendar system for making it more useful for people to book and pay businesses.

This young entrepreneur is a big believer in taking chances. “If a Silicon Valley can exist with the brains of twenty-somethings creating exciting businesses and Fortune 500 companies, we too can ride a buoyant economy, innovate, and create successful brands and businesses,” he says.