Monday, September 12, 2011

I am FOB

Welcome back to The Organic Indian! Let's dive right in and cover happenings since the last installment of this blog.

First, I graduated. In early 2011, I was in India finishing the final bit of work for my thesis. I came back to California in April, gave my oral examination in May, walked in cap and gown in June, and handed in my dissertation in August. I subsequently came straight back to India where I type these words from.

Next, I am now working full time on Awaaz.De ("Give your voice"), the startup I co-founded with Tap last year. The company is a spin-off of my thesis project, Avaaj Otalo, which is a voice information service for small scale farmers in Gujarat to access and share agricultural advice using any mobile phone. Callers dial a regular phone number and access a question and answer message board, where they can post, browse, and respond to others' questions and answers. We launched the service with DSC, our local NGO partner, in 2009, and it has been live since then. If this paragraph sounds like a rehearsed spiel that has been rattled off in verbal and written form hundreds of times to hundreds of people in the last year, you are on the money.

My dissertation was on the design and usage of Avaaj Otalo. As I neared graduation, we needed a way for the service to live on. It wouldn't be right to just pack up my computer and call it a day just because I was graduating. We had started something that our local partners had invested time, money, and effort on, and that was delivering real value to farmers who depended on it: to date AO has served over 40,000 calls from 5,000 callers.

That's where Awaaz.De comes in. It hosts Avaaj Otalo: all of the calls into and out of AO come through the servers in the our office. In addition, we generalized the software underlying AO and created a customizable voice social media platform. So now any organization in India who wants to reach remote, disconnected communities can set up their own voice application with us. We help design a custom application based on the particular information and communication needs the organization is trying to address. Then we set up the application on our servers, and give the org a phone number and a login to a web-based administration interface. They don't have to install any software or manage any hardware. We take care of all the of the technology, it is a fully hosted service. The organization is the front-facing entity for the service. They promote the phone number as a service they are provided. They are also responsible for the content on the system: responding to questions form the community, uploading new info, broadcasting and routing messages, etc. Currently we are hosting applications for eight different organizations across six states in India. And not just for agriculture, but a variety of domains like labor rights, women's empowerment, and education.

And like that the company is off and running. We acquired our partners in a relatively short time, all since last September. And they all came through word-of-mouth. We hadn't even set up a website and we were getting requests from folks, like the service we offer has been needed for a while now, only no one was offering it. So in a way I don't really feel like I started the company, more that the company started itself. All very organic and demand-driven, which makes it feel right. There was nothing unnatural or forced about how things have developed. In fact if anything I would say I have been reluctant, conservative, perhaps even in denial about the inevitability of the company every step of the way. Honestly I didn't see it coming, yet now I look back at the path and it makes perfect sense. I couldn't see that far ahead, but now here I am trying to make this a way to earn a living. So far, it's looking possible. We are revenue-generating, have one full-time employee, Chirag, and an office with a sign and a logo. The other day, we even got business cards.

As I began to see light at the end of the tunnel of grad school about a year and a half ago, I started to think about what to do next. I thought about staying in academia as a professor, or getting a job at an organization I like and care about (one I've had on my list for a while is NPR), working for the government (inspired by Obama), and of course continuing to work on the stuff we started in India in some capacity. Then we started Awaaz.De, and that option became a concrete possibility. Since then, with a more-than-gentle nudging of Tap, I started trying on the role of entrepreneur in my mind. Is it for me? I have always felt my personality isn't suited for entrepreneurship, I don't have an unquenchable thirst for it like the best ones seem to have. But over the last year or so I have begun to start embracing the role, and at this point I can say with full conviction that this is what I want to do. I am an entrepreneur. I'm excited to develop the skills that are required to be a good entrepreneur. In particular understanding what people need, working under uncertainty, innovating, having a strong vision, and leading people. No matter the level of success the business achieves, I want the learning experience and opportunity for growth. Assuming this new identity, I've seen the transition in how I think and interact with friends and others. I am more protective of business interests in political debates (fiscal conservative?). When I'm at social events, I find myself giving the AD pitch 30 times throughout the night because I have no other way to answer the question, "So what do you do?". Dad, Jay, and I are all currently running our own businesses. Only mom is doing the sensible thing and working for an institution. We are a family of hustlers, as one of Jay's high school buddies recently remarked. Danny Patel would be proud, we have "various type of a strength" and "the vizzzun".

But it's not just about entrepreneurship, I am excited about Awaaz.De in particular. I love what we do and the service we provide. I wholeheartedly believe in it and its potential. I sit in meetings with all kinds of social impact organizations across India and say with genuine belief behind it that what we are selling is an amazing thing and can be revolutionary. I don't have to trick myself to think it, I've fully drank the kool-aid. It's one of the rare things in life that feels fresh even as I dive deeper in. With some ideas, they don't stand up to scrutiny, don't have depth and nuance and complexity. After spending enough time thinking about it, the idea withers in your mind. It no longer keeps your attention and interest beyond a certain quantity of attention. But with this, the more I think about what we're doing, the more excited I get. It has a blossoming, generative property. Every day I wake up feeling excited about the possibilities, and the number of possibilities keep increasing. More than I can keep up with really. There is so much potential for what we are doing, I just want to capture even some part of it and see what kind of ride that wave takes us on. The cliche goes that the test of your love for a job is whether you'd be willing to do that job even if you had a $0 salary. So far I'm passing the test.

But all that said, I think the big turning point in making the decision to work on Awaaz.De full time was when I found a suitable living situation in Ahmedabad. The entire Shreeji Krishna crew will be shifting to Sivanta apartments, a residential community bang opposite the Gandhi Ashram. When we all put in our deposits for the apartment, my decision to come to Ahmedabad was sealed. When you are looking for a happy work opportunity, what you are doing matters, but you also have to consider your social well-being. I knew that if I stayed in Ahmedabad, I would have a strong social circle. I already had bunch of relatives to maintain the feel of family, but having a like-hearted group of friends is also key. It's a blessing to be around Jayeshbhai, Anarben, MAM, little MAM, Anji, Nimo, and other MBL angels. Manav Sadhna is an inspiring ecosystem, it's the closest thing you can get to the CF posse outside of the Bay. I needed that piece in place before making the leap. Also I have a feeling that all of the difficulties I have living in India (the weather, the crowds, pollution, lack of taquerias) will be mitigated by having my own space to call home. I look forward to carving out a corner of India that I can really make my own and be totally comfortable in.

Recently I was trading emails with Kaushal, my friend from college. Back then we used to tease each other because he's a FOB and I'm an ABCD. As we were going back and forth planning a long overdue reunion in Bombay, he made a joke about carrying passports in Malad that I didn't understand. When I reminded him that I am not a FOB, he replied, "You're a FOB now!" It's totally true, I'm a reverse-FOB.

It's been somewhat of a challenge mentally adjusting to fact that I'll be living in India. Mostly because it will mean leaving so many beloved family and friends who I always miss dearly when I'm away. For their sake I've been trying to soften the language around my "move" to India. "Move" implies that I'm going and never coming back (Jo I promise I'll be back!!!). So I tell people that for the "foreseeable future" I'll be "based" in Ahmedabad, but keeping in frequent touch with my American my roots. And for sure, I'll be back.

I always had it in my mind that I would be involved in entrepreneurship in some capacity after grad school, but assumed that the opportunity would be in California, Silicon Valley in particular. But in life you can't deal your own cards, you can only play the hand that's been dealt. My cards have entrepreneurship, but also India. I'm going all-in.


  1. Great post! GO for it YO!

  2. Stepping it up! :) Long back, we had a conversation about different kinds of professions and how you resonated with ones that created new value in the world, that everyone could benefit from. There's lots of businesses out there, and all flavors of entrepreneurs to back them up, but you are trying to make a bigger pie that everyone can benefit from. That's a true entrepreneur. You have the skills and the heart to be one of those, so I'm delighted that Tap and the MBL posse in A'bad has nudged you towards your destiny. :)

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  4. Neilbhai,

    I know that you like Nimo's Blood Brothers rap a lot. And here at home, my 5 year old son has seen the video and sung it at least a thousand times in the last year (with no idea of a single word :). Now that you have "officially" moved in, I suppose it is time to make a reverse rap with the last scene of you encouraging your brother to go to India (Please go, I want you to know, what I've gone through!). And here are the first lines to get your started:

    Maro Dil My Heart
    Maro Loi My Blood
    Maro State California
    My family two worlds apart
    How did I move on buddy
    Service in my heart
    'Coz no matter where I go
    My soul is same space

    (fi fi fi fi fi...)

  5. Ragu Bhai :) fantastic!!!!
    Neil: Welcome back buddy :)

  6. love it man -- laying down roots in india, and yes, we will be holding you to the "Jo I promise I'll be back" line. looking forward to big thangs (done in a small way of course ;-))

    p.s. ragu, you would make nimo proud :-)