Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, augmentative reality, and the cloud enable digital-first companies to connect with customers uniquely and accomplish competitive advantage
What makes startups intriguing? Business idea, tech-savvy approach, commitment to excellence, amount of risk involved, agile work culture, new revenue opportunities, the challenge they try to solve, or perhaps a combination of all that help them drive business innovations.
The last 24 months have demonstrated that when conventional businesses face substantial instability and high volatility, the startups emerge as a guiding force to develop unique solutions to disrupt the status quo.
By leveraging the most modern and innovative tools and platforms based on data-centric innovation, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), augmentative and virtual reality (AR/VR), blockchain, and the cloud, many of these digital-enabled enterprises are empowering Indian economy to change and adapt to the new normal at a ground-breaking and awe-inspiring way.
No wonder India is the world's third-largest startup ecosystem after the US and China today. According to NASSCOM, India added a record number of 1,600+ tech startups during 2020, the highest figure in the three years preceding 2020. To date, 77 startups have entered the country's unicorn club, a term used for private companies with a valuation of one billion US dollars or more. 38 of them joined the coveted club in 2021 alone. That's close to 50%. And yet, this spurt in unicorns in India looks like just the beginning.
Ranging from fintech, e-commerce, crypto, OTT-based entertainment, SaaS, social media, gaming, healthcare, EdTech, and mobility, tech-enabled startups are strengthening their roots, making deeper engage with their employees, and building transformative solutions to win in the New Normal.
Financial sector at the forefront of data-led innovations
The pandemic-led social protocols enabled tech-driven startups to develop innovations that help them stand out from their conventional peers. One of the areas primarily affected by the pandemic was the banking and finance sector.
According to a KPMG report, titled COVID-19: Impact on the Banking Sector, the arrival of the pandemic compelled banks, even the most territorial and branch-centric ones, to use channels that have never been their strategic priority. "A digital revolution in the financial crisis was the need of the hour. The financial services users and employees were not ready for the pandemic-triggered change. Most of the due diligence and meeting used to happen physically in a traditional scenario. But the outbreak has changed everything, and you needed tech-enabled innovations to solve the existing challenges," says Harsh Mittal, CTO, CredAvenue, a debt platform for enterprises, lenders, and investors.
CredAvenue currently services over 1,000 issuers and 200 investors, and its analytics and API-powered platform facilitate various loan transactions and investment avenues.
So, how is technology transforming and pushing innovations in the banking and finance sector in India?
"Technology has not only enhanced organizations' ability to handle COVID related crises more efficiently, but it has also driven organizations to focus more on providing a seamless customer experience with minimum contact. Platforms powered by AI and analytics are helping organizations to make data-driven decisions, provide personalized customer experience and better servicing," spots Jyothirlatha B, CTO, Godrej Housing Finance. Founded in 2020, the company digitized its operations since the launch and introduced prompt sanctions of zero-touch loans and financial solutions during the pandemic.
During the outbreak, the gaps in traditional banking methodologies became more visible as consumers abruptly transitioned to online and digital channels. The country's FinTech ecosystem was seen as an enabler to disrupt the sector and deliver banking services seamlessly even to underserved and unbanked in semi-urban and rural India. But are these new age platforms have enough armoury to secure the personal data of consumers?
“We have the seamless KYC process that can be instantly completed through our app. We follow stringent tech, assessment and governance procedures to secure the data on our platform. We have implemented strong AI and ML based monitoring systems to keep a strong check on cyber attacks in real time and protect customer information,” says Karthikeyan K, Co-Founder & CTO, KreditBee, a personal loan platform that extend credit to self-employed and salaried individuals.
Karthikeyan further adds that the company has zero servers to handle and all of its customer facing platforms have 100% surveillance.
Over the last few years, these innovative financial platforms have been instrumental in replacing the cumbersome and paper-intensive processes with digitalized real-time lending and payment solutions in efficient manner. They largely rely on third-party data to assess credit worthiness of prospective customers and leverage specialised algorithms to avert fraud and sieving out likely nonpayers.
" We leverage intelligent data patterns and algorithms to verify individuals' and organizations' creditworthiness who need credit. These AI-ML-based tools enable us to analyze their current cash-flows, credit history, social media reputation, and future growth patterns. The small merchants learned the art of using digital tech platforms to continue their business even when the market is facing lockdown. There was an overall surge in consumer credit demand in the economy during the pandemic." states Vikas Garg, Co-Founder, Paytail.
The platform provides instant document-less credit up to INR 2 lakhs to consumers for buying products and services across millions of offline merchants.
Echoing similar sentiments, Rachit Chawla, CEO & Founder, Finway FSC, comments, "We are using AI/ML/VR at every single stage of processing that takes place in our enterprise. Ultimately, a massive amount of data is being accumulated to our central system, which helps us analyze which financial institutions are likely to approve a particular loan."
"For example, if an organization has lent a loan to a particular category of a customer in the past, the likelihood of lending to the same kind of customers in the future gets increases. So, that's how we have automated everything and simplified the entire process using the digital medium to reap benefits in the quickest and fastest real-time possible," explains Varun Aggarwal, CTO, Finway.
According to the industry experts, in a post-COVID world, digital banking or neo- banking will gain prominence. Banking as a service (BaaS) wherein the country is seeing unbundling of banking infrastructure, APIs specifically, for use by fintechs will also be popular.
“Digital lending and within that deferred payment financing will be a huge driver of growth for fintechs. In addition to all of these, we see increased usage of cloud and big data analytics by companies as they chase speed and agility. Innovations in vernacular and voice will play a key role in penetrating deeper in this market. While bookkeeping has been a great entry point for us, we see this evolving into a network fintech by connecting retailers, their suppliers and customers on a single platform,” says Harsh Pokharna, CEO & Co-Founder of OkCredit, a book-keeping startup for micro and small businesses that handles credit account management.
Transforming business models
A sector that was hit badly during the outbreak was the restaurants, meat, and poultry processing industry. The restaurant industry was caught unaware and shut down almost overnight during the lockdown, leaving all its workforce and owners in distress. Together they witnessed more job losses and sales decline than other sectors during the last 24 months. Many traditional establishments could not recover from the unprecedented strains on their food supply chain models and go out of business. This is where tech-enabled dining and food delivery apps came to the forefront, helping food suppliers manage the erratic demand-supply gap and steer through such taxing times by unleashing the power of the cloud, data, and predictive analytics.
Until a few years back, restaurants and food suppliers would get directly involved in food delivery, making advanced table reservations and recommending as per customers preferences which was a painstaking process as many of them lacked quality staff in these areas and tracking and monitoring ability. The specialized food and table reservation apps have transformed the ecosystem aligning with the evolving consumer expectations and regulations.
"During the unlock phase 1, we were instrumental in digitizing the menu of over 5,000 restaurants to enable demand-supply-led dynamic pricing and contactless dining experience," says Ankit Mehrotra, Co-Founder & CEO of Dineout.
Mehrotra informs that by leveraging its in-house data-science capabilities, the company helps restaurant owners to understand their customers' food preferences, create discount strategies and manage supply chains to make their operations intelligent and get repeat customers.
Tech-enabled enterprises such as Zomato, Swiggy, FreshToHome, Licious, TenderCuts, Uber Eats, EazyDiner, and others came up with unique tech-focused strategies to help restaurants, street food vendors, and livestock producers survive, moving them into organized food space while ensuring safety and hygiene in contactless food delivery to consumers. Leveraging intelligent IoT asset tracking systems and intelligent analytics engines, they provide robust monitoring mechanisms to keep an eye on their fill rates and delivery effectiveness to transport fresh and contamination-free food to customers.
"We are one of the few companies who have leveraged technology to create gold supply chains in the sector we operate. We have been using statistical modeling for a very long time and now extensively testing and deploying the demand planning algorithms to drive more personalized experiences to the meat lovers," says Himanshu Verma, Chief Product & Technology Officer, Licious.
The food-tech company is leveraging specialized AI/ML models to identify individual meat consumption patterns and trends to deliver a more personalized experience.
"Indians have a unique relationship with meat. Some people don't eat on Monday, and some don't eat on Thursdays, for instance. And then, there is intervallic ritual abstinence among meat-eaters that vary from region to region, community to community, and household to household. So, with this pattern, I can't collate data for a few months and ensure a meaningful reference. I may get it completely wrong. We need to see an extensive set of data to get any significant interference around future behaviors, and less than a year's data is not useful," Verma explains.
Another fresh meat and seafood delivery startup, TenderCuts, uses algorithms and machine learning to predict the demand cycles. The Chennai-based omnichannel meat retailer uses machine learning to split the orders when demand is exceptionally high, according to the optimal drift of each rider, and plan their trips to make sure the order reaches the customers on time.
"Once the lockdown was relaxed, customers wanted to come into the store and pick their orders. We immediately introduced 'contactless retail' services to help maintain social distancing. The service lets customers book their orders on the app, which gets allotted to the nearest shop. The shop then reserved a slot when the customer could come in and pick up the slot without any hassle and overcrowding," says Varun Prasad Chandran, CTO, TenderCuts.
The industry is witnessing several innovators disrupting India's unorganized transport logistics business, projected at around USD 200 billion. The country's logistics sector faces two significant challenges. First is the lack of a proper communication channel, and second is the trust gap among various stakeholders in the market. Startups such as Porter, BlackBuck, Vahak, and Let's transport are leveraging freight and fleet management tech platforms to allow businesses and consumers to hire trucks and tempos in real-time while eradicating inefficiencies.
"Given the number of untapped opportunities in the logistics market, it becomes essential to understand the industry dynamics and identify possible demand hotspots thoroughly. This is where data analytics tech comes into play. It helps us make informed decisions by sharing insights, like new patterns, market trends, and client preferences," says Shruti Ranjan Satapathy, Chief Technology Officer, Porter.
By digitizing the overall ecosystem, startups like Porter provide on-demand logistics support while dramatically reducing the friction between users and vendors by delivering cashless payment provision on their platform – making the entire experience much more seamless than the traditional operating models.
"While the problems faced by the industry are not changing, the huge leap in smartphone and data penetration has made it easier than ever to solve the problem through technology. We at Vahak are using our tech platform to provide a common communication platform for the industry and leveraging ML and AL technologies to improve market efficiency," says Karan Shaha, CEO & Co-Founder, Vahak, an online transport marketplace & networking community of truck owners, transporters and consignors.
The company uses advanced algorithms and ML technology to match the loads and lorries on the platform. "The algorithm takes into account an array of factors and uses the data collected by the marketplace to improve matchmaking efficiency. In routes with good market liquidity, some lorry owners can increase the lorry utilization up to 85%-90%, which is usually around 55% for an average player in the offline market," adds Shaha.
If ride-hailing cabs such as Uber and Ola transformed the inter-city commuting and mobility landscape, bike-sharing platforms such as Yulu bikes, Vogo and Rapido are harnessing the power of tech to offer real-time clean alternative solutions like electric vehicles (EVs) to lessen traffic jams and pollution in metros.
"Mobility is extremely critical for the success of any economy and at Yulu EV shared mobility platform, we are trying to solve the challenges faced by commuters of urban India in a tech-driven environment-friendly way," says Naveen Dachuri, Co-Founder & CTO, YULU Bikes.
Its EV bikes are IoT-enabled and leverage ML-driven network intelligence. The company is expanding its charging infrastructure across cities such as Bangalore, Delhi, and Mumbai. "There was much demand for the last-mile delivery segment during the COVID. People became more and more reliant upon the delivery segment. We saw the opportunity in the goods mobility market and started forging partnerships with different e-delivery commerce companies to push them to use EVs," Dachuri adds.
Another young startup, Legistify, is rejuvenating the ecosystem that has long remained unaffected by tech disruption. The company offers a gamut of legal solutions to enterprises to manage their legal work efficiently through its digital ERP platform. "A few years back, we realized the massive demand-supply gap that exists between lawyers who are there to provide services and consultation and individuals and larger enterprises who seamlessly want these services. And that's how Legistify was born. Over the last two years, we have been extensively leveraging tech to enable enterprise legal teams to get their work sorted, to help them with the right set of technology for excelling their core functioning through our SaaS-based platform," says Akshat Singhal, Founder & CEO, Legistify.
Legistify is building a market network for legal, leveraging cloud and AI/ML-driven analytics to prompt new case alerts, auto-tracking quickly, defined workflows, and providing verified hyperlocal lawyers support across India.
Another case in point is Games24X7, which implemented innovative cloud-enabled ways to manage customer-driven usage spikes while maintaining low latency to ensure consistent user experiences and zero outages. Leveraging cutting-edge analytical and intelligence solutions, it kept a strong check on identifying and mitigating security risks and conducted frequently distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) drills before the period it expected steep traffic on its platform.
There has also been a slew of unique startups that have emerged to meet the rising demand of digital as a medium to deliver skill-based training and school and university education. The continuous threat of the pandemic has compelled schools, colleges, and universities across the country to close or operate intermittently with blended models to break the spread of the virus. Ed-tech companies such as Byju, Vedantu, Unacademy, UpGrad, Toppr, and Cuemath have been innovating to disrupt the Indian learning and education sector. By leveraging 3D animation, gamification, AR, and VR, they are helping kids and students transition from face-to-face teaching to digital learning seamlessly.
"The role of online learning is not just to replicate offline classes in digital space but to make it more interactive, engaging, and personalized. By combining the ability of computing, technology, and data, we want to create a more personalized, enhanced, and democratized learning," says Dev Roy, Chief Innovation and Learning Officer, BYJU'S, in a recent press statement while announcing the launch of its Innovation Hub in the UK, the US, and India.
Through its Byju's Lab, the company aims to hire the brightest AI and ML talent to strengthen its tech capabilities in delivering adaptive, engaging, and effective learning programs.
The case of intuition versus insights – excelling user experiences
In today's consumer-centric world, consistently delivering an exceptional customer experience at every touchpoint is critical for long-term success. It's the customer ultimately who makes or breaks a brand's success. And who would know it better than the new-age startups?
There are two parts to the personalized experience problem statement. The first is to understand the psychological behavior of the individual, and the second is to present it in the most intuitive way possible. "We win half the battle if we understand our users' psychological purchasing behavior and show those results they like. The second half of the battle is to present the data correctly and intuitively possible, which we provide through Augmented Reality. AR-VR-MR are the only ways where we can provide an excellent experience and purchasing assistance to the user," says Devvrat Arya, Vice President - Technology, Pepperfry.
During the pandemic, Pepperfry was one of the first digital service providers to take cognizance of the transition in consumer behavior from offline to online and deployed simplified UI/UX to ensure a seamless experience for consumers, especially first-time buyers (FTB). The company started offering a 3D model viewing feature where users can view a product in a 3D model and interact with the product on their mobile phones and website.
From a business perspective, Pepperfry's tech-integrated logistics infrastructure aided in clearing the delivery backlog, which was caused due to the lockdown in a brief period. "We have been leveraging an in-house analytics solution called 'Athena,' named after the Greek goddess of wisdom and strategy, to help our team stay updated on important metrics and trends. This has enabled us to craft powerful strategies to continue championing the online furniture and home space," Arya added.
Businesses today have multiple touchpoints to connect with the customer – be it social media, online, website, conversational chatbots, email, or phone. It becomes critical to continuously meet customers' expectations digitally by deploying action-oriented strategy and leveraging new-age technology. “Disruptive startups are leveraging AI-powered chatbots and deep-learning-based algorithms to accurately understand natural language, improve operational efficiencies and handle customer queries with higher precision,” says Saumil Shah, VP - Engineering, Haptik.ai.
As new channels of engagement open, any customer experience platform needs to make sure they can seamlessly integrate with minimal downtime and faster time to value. The healthcare industry, for instance, has been long waiting for such innovations at scale.
"During the peak wave period, we built several tools to identify available COVID beds in hospitals, conduct lab tests at home, and enable people to register themselves for the vaccination program," says Enbasekar D, Co-Founder & CTO, MediBuddy.
By leveraging AI, data science, natural language processing (NLP), the company has been analyzing millions of data records to track its initiatives, understand healthcare requirements, and monitor the quality of medical services that doctors provide on its platform.
"Providing stellar user experience is a key priority for us. We have a strong team of product managers, analysts, and tech specialists who interact with customers to find how to best design user interfaces, create trust with users, and deliver ease of use," Enbasekar adds.
Zoomin, one of the country's leading digital photo printing and gifting apps, has been leveraging specialized software and algorithms at every part of its operations to deliver innovative gifting solutions and smartly connect with customers. It uses cloud infrastructure and analytics to ensure that the customers are served with relevant designs and products, as per their choice. Founded in 2008, it witnessed a massive dip in its users during the lockdown but was able to recover from it quickly by harnessing the power of new-age technologies.
"We use client-facing AI tools to make the photo creation process far simpler and easier for customers, both on the Zoomin App and the website, and leverage our cloud infrastructure to store and transform images to create the perfect print-ready files. By leveraging the latest web and app technologies, we provide access to the customers and help them create the photo album. In addition, we have an end-to-end production workflow to make sure that orders placed are printed fast and ship at the fastest possible time," says Sachin Katira, CEO & Director at Zoomin.
Continuous learning is key
The secret recipe for many startups across the globe lies in their dynamic culture of continuous learning and innovation. Triggered by constant competitive necessity, the last two years have seen startups quickly deploying new strategies such as investing in tech and talent up-gradation to build contactless processes needed to create transformative products and solutions.
"We make sure that our people are continuously learning. Because if they don't learn, they can't innovate. When they learn and grow, the company grows with them. So, that's a big philosophy for our people, especially in the technology teams," says Ajay Poddar, VP -Engineering, Shaadi.com, world's leading matchmaking platform.
Poddar credits the success of their matchmaking platform on their solid data strategy, relentless focus on innovation, and leveraging tech for continued experimentation, such as deploying efficient algorithms and deep-learning-based image analysis tools to create stellar user experiences unforgettable first impressions on their platform.
For Ferns N Petals, one of the country's most prominent digital flower and gifts retailers, the calm in business during the outbreak was an opportunity to rapidly innovate in product personalization, digital gifting space, and get a window to take efforts to modernize its IT infrastructure.
"We saw a massive dip [almost 98%] in our revenues during the first wave of the pandemic because of the outbreak-triggered restrictions on real-world socializing. We introduced digital gifting as a possible substitute mechanism to fulfill the gifting needs of our customers and innovate our business model. This included a spectrum of innovative ideas enabled by technology, such as musicians on the call, celebrity media messages, fitness on the call, digital caricatures," says Vasanth Kamatgi, CTO, Ferns N Petals.
Another critical aspect of the startup culture is leveraging tech to enable internal teams and people to drive continuous innovations with speed and impact. "We enable our people to leverage best of the productivity tools and state of the art technology such as Google Jamboard to collaborate and brainstorm in a seamless way across our hybrid workforce to come up with new ideas. We are entirely on the cloud and building a culture in which that no-one feels left out. Even if one person is attending remotely, we ensure that everyone has kept their video on and continuously engaged," says Harsh Mittal of CredAvenue.
The pandemic saw many startups taking giant steps to improve their algorithms, develop deeper data-infrastructure solutions, and develop talent up-gradation efforts to create future-proof models further – something that has to be followed consistently.
Despite the tremendous potential, the surge in venture capital investments, and the tech advantage at their disposal, few startups succeed beyond their early stages and become prominent players.
Many of the next-gen startups founders come from a technology background, giving them an early edge over conventional businesses. However, it is also true that there is no standalone strategy that can provide an advantage all the time in any industry.
Faulty customer insights, poor planning for long-term growth, lack of agility, leadership lacuna, imitation without understanding unique market needs are some of the key reasons why a majority of the promising startups stumbled in due course of time. Beyond deploying for customer acquisition strategy, emerging technologies such as AI, ML, and RPA need to be deployed to differentiate products and services in a meaningful manner to scale, time to market, further innovate and add value to the industry based on changing times.
The road to becoming a great startup from a promising startup is a daunting process. In the next few years, startups with robust tech integrations and learning models at all levels – from customer experience, product diversification, data governance and security, talent management, competition monitoring, and customer retention – will have a greater potential to leapfrog business challenges and excel in innovation quotient, albeit with a consistent effort.