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Friday, February 16, 2018

The Zen and the Art of Powering a Start Up

Hello, all you raring to join the start-up brigade. Read in for some valuable insights from Rahul Bhalla, core member of the team that powered Zenatix.
(I wrote this  piece for the business academy of VISA. It is on the business academy website)

When Rahul Bhalla, Vishal Bansal and Amarjeet Singh of the batch of 2002 graduated from IIT Delhi it was to walk career paths as varied as legal outsourcing, financial services and technology. But the commonality of their engineering background, of having lived in the same hostel and of wanting to do something together at some point ensured that they not only kept in touch but also kept bouncing ideas for a start up. In 2013 when they quit their comfortable jobs the only certainty was that their future lay in the application of data analytics. 

Reminiscing about the ‘ what to do, when to do’ days Rahul says, ‘we felt quitting our jobs as the first step was necessary in order to come out of our  individual cushioned cocoons and look for opportunities. We were passionate about data analytics and as a natural corollary started researching on application of data analytics for verticals such as retail, health care, e-commerce, financial services, energy etc. before zeroing in on energy efficiency’. 

The clinching factor was that Amarjeet had already done a lot of research in energy sustainability.  
Zenatix was formally launched in the November of 2013. Quiz him about how the trio sustained themselves financially in the gap period between leaving their jobs and starting Zenatix, and Rahul Bhalla laughs. Calling it a slow growth period he says that even after the launch the three kept pumping in savings and putting back whatever money they were making into the business. It took 15-18 months for things to start looking up. By this time they had some good customers and had raised some money.
In this period of slow growth it was trust and faith coupled with belief in his co-workers that kept Bhalla going.

Building the Product
This energy data analytics firm helps large commercial customers of energy reduce their energy consumption using intelligence from their energy data. The basic premise of the company is operational behaviour – simply put it is what time certain equipment is switched on or off.
Rahul Bhalla, CEO and Head of Sales, gives an example he has found most people are able to relate to: that of a telephone bill. In a telephone bill one is able to see how much one has spent on SMS’s, local calls, STD charges, and international calls and so on. If the mobile bill is higher than normal in a particular month one can check and see that the roaming charges make sense because one was traveling. Compare this to an electricity bill which gives no insight beyond the total number of units consumed. This lack of insight hits the commercial sector spending lakhs, or even crores, every month the hardest.

Zenatix helps disaggregate energy consumption into major electrical loadsand does so in real time. It uses physical sensors to acquire data on usage and sets up cloud based software for real time monitoring of the client’s energy consumption. It runs advanced analytics on the collected data and the softwaretriggers controls or prompts for controls, which drive energy savings.

Ask him about their journey in developing the product and he feels identifying a problem and its solution is important but even more than that is the ability to evolve because the customers and the market are never static. When one takes a product to the market the market reacts in a certain fashion and the customers react in another and one has to learn very quickly.  He says,’ when we started we were throwing data at people but soon realised that this data was not helping them. If we had not evolved and narrowed down our focus to commercial buildings and air conditioners our product would not have had any compelling raison d 'ĂȘtre.

Building the Team
Zenatix is divided into three verticals. Sales and Business Development headed by Rahul Bhalla,Operations  headed by VishalBansal and Technology headed by Amarjeet Singh. Presently the firm has about fifteen employees but plans to scale up the number by ten in the coming months. Ask Rahul Bhalla what he looks for in a prospective employee and his answer is a succinct ‘passion and mind set’. He feels that in the start up world the mind set a person needs to have is very different from the cushy and predictable environment of established firms where one comes in and leaves office at a certain time. In a start up the employee needs to be able to contribute to self-growth and the growth of the company. And of course get rewarded in return.

This is what worked for him personally and what keeps him going. He always worked for companies which were start ups at the time he joined: Evalueserve ,CPA Global, and UnitedLex  Corporation. He was the first employee at the latter. The company grew to about 100 million dollars in top line in about 6-7 years and concomitantly he went on to become the Vice President of Intellectual Property.

Staying Motivated
Passion is a lietmotif of Bhalla’s talk. ‘The scale of electricity consumption of corporates, hotels hospitals is huge. If I can reduce a large building’s energy consumption by 10% that can possibly power four villages in India. The realisation that if we are able to scale up our business and impact how people live in this world keeps me motivated’. Freshness and newness of challenges also keep him motivated.

There is a smile in his voice as he repeats, ‘my eureka moments’? A pause and then he continues,’the eureka moments come firstly when you see that your product has made a difference in someone’s life. The second is when your start-up raises money.’

Zenatix raised around Rs 1.27 crore ($200k) in seed funding from a number of high profile investors. ‘When you see a good set of individuals helping you in your endeavour to have your product have a wider outreach it is a validation of your work and yes, it becomes a special moment.’
For him the favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur is seeing a new challenge daily. ‘When you get up in the morning you have one thing in your mind but that goes up to ten when you reach office. Every day is a new day and this is what keeps me going. The focus is on how to deliver more and more value to the customer’.

Executing and Staying Ahead
Bhalla feels that innovation and execution are the key to staying ahead in today’s competitive market. An idea is nothing on its own – it requires execution. This means installation of hardware and software, engaging with customers, delivering on promises.

He firmly believes that building a business is not so much about an idea but more about execution. So before one starts looking out for ideas, look for co-founder(s) so that there is a solid team that can execute well. That's what they (co-founders of Zenatix) did. When they quit their jobs, they had no clue what they were we going to do but had faith in each other's capabilities. Their goal was simple - solve a real problem that has a big scale.  Energy efficiency is a real problem and one never has to worry about scale - everybody on this planet is a consumer of electricity!

Ethical concerns are what most entrepreneurs setting up base in India have to face including he and his co-founders. ’We were clear in our minds that we would never engage in any unethical practice. If our business succeeded well and good, otherwise we would figure out something else. Once we had taken a stand we stuck to it and that worked for us. So far we have been able to demonstrate significant growth based on value for our product.’

The ready laugh is there again when he is asked about the trio being labelled “The powerpuff boys” by a national weekly. ‘Yes, that was a smart line and one felt good’.
And that’s how one leaves him- feeling good about his work, motivated by the feedback, in love with the space he is in at the present.

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