After spending over two decades at Microsoft, Sanjay Parthasarathy has turned entrepreneur at 49 with Indix. Betting on product intelligence as the next big wave, he aims to build solutions which will catalogue every product across the globe and offer real-time product and pricing insights for retailers to base their decisions on.
It’s not often that you walk into the headquarters of a fast growing startup, to be received by the CEO himself. Neither is it a common occurrence to witness an amply spacious, design-sensitive office, surrounded by art and a mini coffee zone on one corner and a gaming zone on the other. The India headquarters of Indix (Chennai), where we arrived that day, was an informal yet voracious environment of sorts which set the tone for our hour long interview with its co-founder and CEO, Sanjay Parthasarathy. “Everything from the design of this office space to the values that our employees carry is in some way connected to the environment I grew up in and the values I imbibed at Microsoft,” says Parthasarathy, as we begin the interview.
Parthasarathy’s venture, Indix, is today among the leading SaaS-based product intelligence firms, tracking over 800 million products across 7,000 categories through its Reports App and Product API. The vision for Parthasarathy and his team is to build Indix as the Google Maps for product data. “When Google Maps was introduced in 2005, it was simply a digital map for people to find places virtually. Today, it is a part of every piece of software, so widely used that you tend to take it for granted,” he reasons.
The Early Days
Turning entrepreneur was not an overnight decision for Parthasarathy. Rather, it was one he nurtured even a few years before moving out of Microsoft. He believed he could build on an idea which could create a better impact outside and hence, after relocating his family to India in 2009, he took a year off and began travelling, talking to experts and attending TED and Ink conferences. After that, he spent another year refining his thinking and ideas. In his own words, it was more like artwork – a sculpture he was chiselling away over time. Among the notable moments he had during his early stage journey, he remembers his first acquaintance with Vishal Gondal, the founder of GoQii (who invested in Indix). “It was the first TED conference in India (at Mysore), and there was a post conference get together at Leela Palace. There, I ran into Gondal who was doing a demo of his product, and I was fascinated by it. We had several discussions around technology and eventually, he became one of the first investors in my business,” narrates Parthasarathy.
“So many people get into startups because they think in three years they can make a lot of money and exit. Here’s one that speaks to that – it takes a lifetime to do anything worthwhile.”
The Product Development Phase
Right from the word go, Parthasarathy and his co-founders were clear that they didn’t want to build a product for retailers. Instead, they thought about it the way people now think about Google Maps, a feature that is a part of every software (be it restaurant search, real estate purchase, anticipating traffic or more). “We think of our solutions as something that can be applied anywhere; to power the right ads, to power search, to identify the right products, to catalogue your personal assets so that insurance companies can bid on it and more,” he elaborates, with the goal ultimately being to catalogue every product across the globe that anybody can access anywhere.
With angel funding from various investors including Venky Hariharan (co-founder of Kosmix), Anand Rajaram (the former head of Walmart Labs and current founding partner of Cambrian Ventures), S. Somasegar (Corporate VP of Microsoft) and more, Indix launched its BETA version in 2013 and went through a rapid cycle of changes based on client feedback and what the team learnt over the period. “As people began asking for more functionality, we realised that our way ahead was to focus on APIs,” notes Parthasarathy. Today, two years after its official launch, Indix offers three solutions on its platform; Product Intelligence App, which derives actionable insights on the various attributes of a product (such as price, promotion, assortment, competitors and more), Reports App, which generates reports on prices of products at different stores, product availability reports for discovering out of stock products and MAP reports for identifying violations of minimum advertised price, and Product API, which obtains access to offers and catalogue data such as pricing, promotions, attributes and more to enable product search and integration with business systems.
Parthasarathy strongly believes that pedigree doesn’t matter when the product being offered to a customer is effective and serves the purpose. “Companies respond to us because it’s hard when they try to do it, and we do it a little better,” he adds candidly. Today, some of its clients include Microsoft, Shoes.com, Revo Labs and Graphiq.
“I don’t think of our products as a solution for retailers. I see it as one that’s similar to Google Maps; one that is a part of every piece of software. My goal is to catalogue every product across the globe, that anybody can access anywhere.”
Raising the big bucks
Apart from its initial angel round, in March 2014 Indix raised a Series A of US $8.5 million from Avalon Ventures and Nexus Venture Partners, with the funds being channelised towards product development and scaling marketing and sales efforts in the U.S. In June 2015, it raised US $15 million from Nokia Growth Partners and existing investors Avalon Ventures and Nexus Venture Partners, to expand workforce and enhance sales and marketing efforts across geographies. “When it comes to fund raising you not only make the right pitch, but also look for the right people,” shares Parthasarathy. He believes that investors are a company’s most important employees; hence, if you don’t want to hire them, you shouldn’t take money from them. “The strategy of investing is very simple; you invest in people you know and you trust. When I founded Indix, I asked 17 people to invest and 16 did,” he admits.
As is the case with any startup, among the most daunting tasks for Indix was to hire the right employees. In fact, Parthasarathy recalls a time when he had to speak to the parents of potential hires to explain why their son should join a startup. “If those were the days of dearth of candidates due to scepticism associated with the startup culture, today we see employees moving out of the company to build their own startup,” he opines. Culture is something Parthasarathy holds close to his heart. He recalls the first blog he wrote at Indix, titled ‘A dream’, which elaborates on the belief system that he followed and aimed to bring into the company. “It ultimately boils down to four pillars; trust, challenge, support and fun. We really want to be a part of a community and work together as a group,” he shares.
The Path Ahead
Setting aside the cliché of digital marketing and direct sales, Parthasarathy points out an interesting strategy that Indix adopts when putting its products out in the market. Every Indix office has a black box filled with five to six engaging product ideas, coupled with a T-shirt. “Every few months, we send this to our clients and say, if you’re interested to know more about our products, talk to us,” he adds. While on the face of it, it’s a yet another strategy to test the waters and understand how relevant a product may be for a client, the ingenuity associated with the strategy makes for an effective pitch.
As Indix prepares to build a one for all, all for one breed of products for its customers, we ask Parthasarathy, what do you think is the future of product intelligence? “I don’t know where the concept of PI is going, but it is hard. It’s one of those things which is either the craziest idea which will not work or an important idea that will become a part of everything. That’s the way I perceive it,” he admits on a parting note.
Founders: Sanjay Parthasarathy, Sridhar Venkatesh, Satya Kaliki and Rajesh Muppalla
Concept: A cloud-based product intelligence platform
Investors: Nokia Growth Partners, Nexus Venture Partners, Avalon Ventures and other angel investors such as Krishnan Ganesh (Serial Entrepreneur & Angel Investor), Vishal Gondal (Founder of GOQii), Venky Hariharan (co-founder of Kosmix), Anand Rajaram (former head of Walmart Labs) and more.
Impact: Catalogued over 800 million products across 7,000 categories and 10,000 attributes.
Did You Know?
Every Indix office has a black box filled with five to six engaging product ideas, coupled with a T-shirt. Every few months, the box is sent to its clients with a note saying, if you’re interested to know more about our products, talk to us.
Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans – John Lenon.