Paperflite Co-founder and Chief Product Officer Yega opens up about the evolution of the company and why he decided to take the plunge as an entrepreneur in his recent interview with Prodcast as part of The Leadership series.
In this freewheeling chat, he shares his experience of building a start-up ground up, the challenges he faced and what he learned from those experiences.
You can listen to the podcast here:
Here’s the transcript of the conversation.
Srinidy (S): Hello listeners, I am your host today, and my name is Srinidy. Our guest today is Yega, Chief Product Officer at Paperflite. Hello Yega, thank you for joining us today!
Yega (Y): Thank you, Srinidy, for having me on the podcast today.
S: My first question to you is, what is Paperflite, and how did an idea become a product?
Y: Unlike the name sounds, we had very little on paper before we started. We believe in this philosophy of ‘Start Somewhere.’ For us, the first line of working code was the beginning.
We ran on-the-ground experiments and prototypes. Of course, it wasn’t all that smooth, and there were a few futile attempts before we even landed on Paperflite.
Paperflite is close to our hearts because it was built on a real-time experience - a problem that we encountered first-hand. It goes back to my time at Cognizant when I was part of the Emerging Business Accelerator program. This program had potent ideas and business models incubated from teams within Cognizant and they were given the freedom to operate as a standalone venture.
What we built was an Uber-like internal crowdsourcing platform for product evaluations - mobile applications, physical devices, B2C e-commerce rollouts for marquee clients - it was pretty disruptive. As much as we pushed forward with deployments and experiments, our teams and customers needed significant education to adapt to this model.
We had a brilliant creative team that worked on beautiful videos, marketing collateral, case studies, and data reports on how this could change the markets. With all this content in hand, we distributed it on different channels.
But, then, it was all a black hole for us - we had no idea if our audience discovered our content, how was it being used, were our internal teams finding the content.
In essence, the content was getting lost.
Our inspiration here was Netflix - a simple yet powerful platform that helps content creators deliver content and provide feedback to them. It wasn’t all that smooth, to begin with.
We leaned on technology to start with, and we went after a mobile-first application, an iPad-only portable platform. Later we realized the market had a lot more basic problems underground. We’ve fallen a few times, and we continue to learn from our experiences all the time.
S: Awesome. You were leading the ‘Fastest’ venture at Cognizant. And you had a big cushion to support you. What were the challenges when you left that for a start-up?
Y: Yeah, you are right. Being an entrepreneur within a large enterprise means that you have a safety net. You put on your life jacket and take the plunge. It is exciting, and there are a lot of comforts and the power of an established brand backing you.
The second element is the quality and the number of channels, conferences, and clientele that you have. You have so much exposure around, and there are so many problems that you can pick and solve.
The third element is your network of leaders and mentors, which is very important in your formative years. We were very fortunate to have a set of leaders (some of whom are advisors for Paperflite), who have inspired and shaped us for what we are today.
The fourth element is the muscle that we had in terms of the talent pool, infrastructure, resources, and the users/client base. You couldn't ask for anything more.
But, as much as entrepreneurship is exciting, it has to resonate with the organization’s strategy. You will have the best minds working alongside you, but you will always be measured against the organization’s strategy.
S: So, how did the three of you - Anant, Vinoth, and you decide to take the plunge into entrepreneurship?
Y: Going back to my earlier point about entrepreneurship, it was about jumping without your life jackets! It might have looked attractive from outside, but the stark reality is that question about your loans, family, and financial stability don't go away - it is a tough bar to cross.
It gives you a lot of freedom to build something ground up without any additional baggage. There is no force or pressure on you to create something that you aren’t interested in or not passionate about.
You find angel customers who are angels in the real sense because they believe in your product, capability, and the team’s ability to solve problems. Entrepreneurship is ten times as exciting as it is risky.
S: Referring to your first customers as angels is nice. Could you narrate how did you acquire your first customer?
Y: Some of the stories are dramatic. For example, one of our earliest customers used a lot of abuses. He was on our $50 plan. It isn’t a lot of money, and his criticism hurt us. The name of the customer was Mike Frazier. We decided to name the feature as Mike Frazier’s feature because he made us all think of a solution for his challenge. It is a much-appreciated feature amongst our customers today.
Eventually, we’ve had Fortune 500 companies reach out to us on our chat channel. In fact, for the first few customers, we thought our friends were playing a prank on us. However, the reality was very different, and we realized that we were close to market-fit. That is what has helped us grow after that.
For us, customer service has been our top priority. We have an excellent relationship with our customers as we continue to learn and grow along with them.
We will have a few pitfalls and shortcomings along the way, but the way you solve and take it further is what makes the journey beautiful.
S: From the day zero of Paperflite to what it is today, what is the stark difference between then and now?
Y: Interesting question. For us, the focus on product management has helped us to assess when to build what. We were able to answer questions about specific features before making the product than building it and then looking back at what happened.
S: What is the one piece of advice that you’d like to give to everyone who wants to start. What should be the Dos and Don'ts?
Y: For anybody who is aspiring to be a product manager, my suggestion is that he/she should be closer to the product and the challenge in front of them. They’ll need to have passion and accountability on everything from the product strategy, roadmap, and customer acquisition that hinges on you.
However, entrepreneurship is a different ball game altogether. Like I said earlier, you will need to start somewhere. You know what your skills, strengths, and passions are, and you will have to run your race.
Never forget to draw parallels and get inspired, though. Steve Jobs himself was so amazed by Sony’s brochures that he used to retain them for their minimalist design and print quality.
We get inspired by music, media, electronics, and technology industries and try and apply them to our product - that gives us a completely different perspective about the challenge in hand.
S: Content need not be just a piece of paper or a blog. It can vary across different forms, types, etc. How do you capture all of it in your product?
Y: Yes, content is heterogeneous. It could be in the form of an email, a text message, a video, a post, an article, or a blog. It need not just be a PDF, PPT, or an MS Word document.
What remains constant is the triad of a creator, publisher, and consumer. Content goes through different channels, forms to consumers. We have invested our efforts in managing multiple channels and the various types of content. Content forms keep evolving, and we try to keep pace with it.
S: Was it easy to get investors on-board to fund your company in the initial days?
Y: It wasn’t easy. We couldn’t identify ourselves with another product in the market because we had encountered this before. We needed a similar product in the market, and we realized that there was a gap in the market. Content has different systems, interfaces, distribution channels, and then there is the data that sits on top of all of this.
The investors raised a lot of questions - why, how, where - so it wasn’t all that easy.
S: Tell us more about the books that you read.
Y: We are Apple fanboys. So, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is on top of the list. It gives a 360-degree view of how you take a product to the market. The depth of every interaction and decision by Steve Jobs is quite impressive.
The other book that I will recommend is Sensemaking by HBR that explains how solely relying on data for your decisions might hurt you and how cultural context to data might influence your product positioning.
S: We are nearly at the end of the podcast. It was amazing to know about the journey of Paperflite and how the product is evolving. We wish you all the very best, and we will be cheering you from the sidelines.
Y: Thank you. I enjoyed speaking with you. Bye.
This podcast originally appeared on The Prodcast’s Episode 8: Why I quit the US job to startup in Chennai?
About the podcast:
The Prodcast is a podcast dedicated to product management, founders, and entrepreneurs, and their inspiring stories about how they built a business from the ground up. Here is the weblink to all their episodes.