An Unorthodox Initiative in Startup Domain

Thiruvananthapuram: Pathanapuram in Kollam district is located around 85 kilometre from Technopark, Thiruvananthapuram and more than 150 kilometre from Infopark, Kochi. Even in the heart of Pathanapuram town, in front of the grama panchayat office, the mobile phone was struggling hard to detect the Edge connectivity. Why would somebody set up a product-based IT startup in this part of the world?

Varun Chandran, the Founder and CEO of Corporate360 (www.corporate360.us), too had every reason not to choose his hometown to set up his office in Kerala. But, before his sheer passion and love for his native place, nothing looked impossible. A Big Data software company, Corporate360 (C360) offers B2B marketing data cloud software that helps companies discover sales leads, ideal buyer profiles and competitive intelligence. The products include Tech SalesCloud, ProspectR and EmailR. The platforms are available as a subscription model with real-time data refresh and data maintenance support.

With an annual turnover of $5 million, the venture is perhaps the only zero-debt startup in Kerala. Using the profit, Varun has now constructed a 12,000-sq. ft. three-storeyed building, which will be inaugurated by Pinarayi Vijayan, Kerala Chief Minister soon. Apart from the office of C360, the building will also host a startup incubator with seed funding from the company, internship facilities for aspiring students and a hostel.

A visit to this self-made IT professional’s office may change your concept about a startup ecosystem. The southwest monsoon had just begun and it was raining heavily. Clad in a white T-shirt and a short trouser, Varun was busy directing the construction of a drain besides the road that leads to his upcoming office. It is a few hundred metres away from his present office. “We had approached the local body for the road work. But, due to elections it got delayed. So we have decided to do it on our own,” said Varun, amidst discussing the work with his elder brother Arun, an ex-service personnel who now heads the India Operations of C360.

A footballer-turned IT professional

Born and brought up at Paadam, a remote village 13 kilometre away from Pathanapuram, Varun had a challenging childhood. “Back then, children of our village mostly went to school till fourth standard. Later, they would assist their parents at work. However, my maternal grandfather K V Sadanandan, who was a Communist leader, persuaded our parents to send us to school. My father was a head-load worker while my mother ran a small shop. Yet, they sent us to a relatively good school. After joining St. Stephens High School at Pathanapuram, football became a fascination for me and I rose to become the captain of the school team and later got a scholarship to join Sports Hostel in Thiruvananthapuram,” Varun reminisces about his school days. With the spirit of a professional footballer, he made his mark in the game by becoming the captain of the Kerala University Under-19 and vice-captain of Under-21 teams. He also bagged the G V Raja Gold Medal for the best footballer of the State.

An unfortunate shoulder injury, while he was pursuing his final-year BCom, changed his destiny. “I stopped playing football and also could not attend two final-year examinations. I returned home and was desperate to find a job to tide over the financial crisis. As a footballer, I got opportunities to mingle with players from different states while participating in inter-university tournaments. This, clubbed with my internet exposure made me aware of job openings in Bengaluru. Raising Rs. 2000 by selling a golden bangle my paternal grandmother gave me, I left for Bengaluru in search of a job in 2001,” says Varun, who still looks very much a professional footballer.

“I attended more than 40 interviews in the first three months, without any success. Though a door was opened for me finally, I was fired after a month citing my poor English-speaking skills. I managed to survive for three months in the second job. In between, I joined a library and started reading books to improve my communication and language skills. Finally, I got a chance to go to the US while working for the fourth company. “I worked in the US for four years and later moved to Singapore. In all, I have nine years of experience working with Oracle and SAP. Looking back, I was really lucky to have joined a product company initially. Even today, I would recommend aspiring IT entrepreneurs not to get fascinated by service companies and instead go for product companies,” he adds, sitting on a cozy recliner at his residence.

360 degree competitive intelligence

While working for SAP, Varun developed certain codes to perform better in his job. “Seeing this, my ex-boss suggested that it was time for me to start my own company. In 2012, I set up a company with the help of my wife. Though we struggled initially, within nine months, we were able to generate business worth quarter of a million dollars. Then I quit my job, hired some freelancers in Manila and California, upgraded the product and increased the staff strength,” says Varun.

Corporate360, as the name suggests, provides 360 degree competitive intelligence to corporates. “Ours is a B2B product.  We create algorithms that would go all over the web, collect data and run analytics on top of it to gather intelligence to help companies run their marketing campaigns. For instance, IBM is the competitor of HP. We collect details about HP’s products that are competing with IBM, their pricing, customers, refresh cycle and the like. This information is very valuable for IBM as they can launch marketing campaigns based on intelligence rather than pushing them throughout the year.  We are the first company in Asia to develop such a product. Initially, we built this competitive intelligence for IT, then moved to Telecom and to other sectors,” he says.

When he learned about the startup ecosystem gradually evolving in Kerala, Varun decided to set up a company in the State in 2013. “We approached Startup Village, Kochi and KSUM (Kerala Startup Mission). But, there was no space available and the fitment was not forthcoming since we were already generating revenue. My brother suggested that we try a socially relevant business model by starting something at Pathanapuram itself. And it was decided to go for the gamble. Now, when we look back, we are happy that we did it. We have our foreign clients who want to come to Kerala because of our peculiar business model. Otherwise, we travel abroad and the deals happen in the US or Singapore,” he adds.

Besides Pathanapuram, Corporate360 has now offices in California and Singapore and employs 42 persons directly. Around 900 people are associating with the company on a part-time basis globally. Major clients of C360 include HP, IBM, Oracle, SAP, Salesforce, Wipro, Cognizant and HCL and the company generates 80 per cent of its business from the US market.

According to Varun, the location does not matter as long as one has a unique product. “Being part of an IT park will certainly help you a lot. But I would not say that this is good or that is bad. It depends. Nothing matters as long as you make the most of the opportunity that you get. We did not enter the startup domain to build a firm, raise money, get into the media and transform into a sexy company. Rather, we experienced a problem, made a product and went to some customers, asking them to try it. Some of them readily accepted it. We got money and we grew organically,” he says.

Within the next two years, Varun wants C360 to become a $25-million company and employ 150 people. “We are growing at a very steady pace by reinvesting the profits back in the business. We will certainly look into options to raise capital when we find the right partner and have the right terms in place,” he says.

In a bid to support aspiring entrepreneurs, Varun has set apart a sum of $20,000 as seed capital for startups. “There are so many engineering colleges around Pathanapuram. Interested students can make use of the facilities available here. We will fund if we get good startups which would complement our existing products or an idea that can be taken to global markets, preferably in healthcare or big data space,” says Varun who is ideating on an internet-based company in healthcare sector.

Under its social responsibility arm, K V Sadanandan Smaraka Trust, C360 has adopted Paadam village and has so far spent $25,000 towards building houses and toilets, operating ambulance service and providing assistance for children’s education. “This year, we are planning to provide food provisions to 72 poor families on a subsidized rate,” he signs off.