In Palo Alto, we meet co-founder and CEO of Cooliris (recently acquired by Yahoo!) and Beam it, Soujanya Bhumkar. Soujanya talks about his story how he came up with the ideas for Cooliris and Beam it, how the current business models work, as well as he provides some advice for young entrepreneurs.

The interview is from October 2014 (before Cooliris was officialy acquired by Yahoo!).

The transcription of the interview is provided below.

INTRODUCTION

Martin: Hi, today we are in Palo Alto with Cooliris and Soujanya. Who are you, Soujanya? And what do you do?

Soujanya: Well, firstly, welcome to you and Anastasia, really happy to have you here at Cooliris. Who am I? It’s a pretty interesting question. I happen to represent a really, really cool team here at Cooliris. As you know, five of them are from Germany, and anothers are from different parts of the world. Cooliris is something that Austin Shoemaker and I started six years ago with couple of other co-founders, in fact Josh and Mayank. And we started with a very simple thesis that you have so much content on the web, how do you really discover and navigate through it. And it has had a series of evolutions during the last six-seven years, where we evolved from that to another product called piglens to then Cooliris for the desktop. And probably one of the biggest shifts that happened in the landscape and in the ecosystem is where mobile ecosystem with Android and iOS started to develop so rapidly, so we actually had to shift significantly to mobile. So, the journey of Cooliris for the last six years has been amazing. My original roots come from India, I was born back in Bombay, I’m a chemical engineer in my earlier life, before I went to University of Chicago for my MBA, and since then we’ve done a couple of startups to be at Cooliris.

Martin: Oh, okay. So, you have been doing some entrepreneurial stuff before you started this company?

Soujanya: That is correct, yes. Cooliris is now currently my third startup. It’s my first one where I’m the CEO and it’s been exciting. We’re on the best team and it’s been an honor for me.

Martin: And how did your MBA helped you to become successful entrepreneur?

Soujanya: It’s a good question because I grew up in an entrepreneurial environment, both my father and mother started colorings company in India, which has now grown to become the largest in Asia. So, inherently, I had the, just by virtual of being at home, kind of hearing and listening to challenges and excitement and all that package of entrepreneurship. But, MBA really, really helped me, again, this was more the Chicago training, to have the level of sort of framework and confidence to say anything that you’re going to be doing, make a worldwide impact, and how do you really scale, and how do you think about business model right from beginning, rather than saying I’ll worry about that later on. I think that has been the biggest contribution from the business school.

Martin: Are there any specific courses or classes that you can recommend people taking?

Soujanya: Yes. So, since I have been, this was now about 15 years ago, entrepreneurship was actually one of the curriculums that started over there. They was Polsky center of entrepreneurship, and they had a program called NVC, which was the new venture challenge, and we participated in that. And since then, and I had been able to stay in close touch with the school, they’ve done a really, really fantastic job of creating more of an entrepreneurship training rather than an entrepreneurship class. And I highly, highly recommend that to, whether it is University of Chicago, or at Stanford you have across the street, whatever it is, earlier you start in that training, I think the better it is.

Martin: Ok, great.

BUSINESS MODEL

Martin: Soujanya, let’s talk about the business model of Cooliris. Currently you have two products. Can you please describe them shortly and how they interrelate?

Soujanya: So, the two particular applications that are in the market today. One is called Cooliris, just like the name of the company, and second one is called BeamIt, which is much more recent addition. The way we look at this is, there’s a very interesting phenomenon that is happening out in the market. And that the word photos, and the definition of photos, and what it really means to you has really changed significantly because everybody now has the phone and the cameras, everything that we know. But there are three main trends that are important to notice.

  • One is the quality of the capture that happens is actually increasing significantly.
  • The number of devices that you use to capture, whether it’s a GoPro, whether it’s a camera or the phone, those are all going up.
  • And then on the consumption side, when you’re looking at it, when if you look at the recent iPhone 6 and 6 plus and all, you have this beautiful, pretty good size screens.

So, when you’re looking at this, a media experience is something that the consumer comes to expect and says I want this to be a great experience. We felt that it’s actually being underserved in the market. So we have approached it from dual sort of lenses, if you will. One lens is the media lens, and that’s what Cooliris does. It aggregates for you without coping it, it does links all your sources, so all your photos in one place becomes a very simple proposition for the consumer. The second one is, it’s under the more of a messaging container, because as people are sharing these photos, they’re all being shared, it’s not like oh, now I have a messaging app which is separate from my media sharing app, which is today what existed before BeamIt came, and we said why are the messaging apps so poor in their experience of media and yet you have good media sharing experiences who are really poor in communications? Why not make it a unified experience with a consumer? So, under the media experience, we look at it, whether you’re looking at it from the media side or from messaging side, so messaging meets media or media meets messaging, is our thesis and proposition.

Business model is an interesting part that you just referred to. Business model comes at it from multiple levels, it’s a freemium business model. It’s, we look at any logs in the market, we look at a WhatsApp, we look at an Evernote, apps that are being very successful at. But in the app economy, they’re not games, but consumer applications, how do you now generate enough of a scale, and yet monetize that scale. And freemium seems to be the right way of going about it, so we have what in the market today is free, you would perhaps love to demo you, Hamon, who’s my colleague, who leads all the BD (business development), he can demo you all the premium features that we’ve thought about. One potential premium feature is actually offline support. And offline is a great value proposition, which is completely non-existent in the market, I would say, in the case of messaging apps where even if you’re offline, you should be able to use that, it saves a lot of sort of data plan and data usage for the consumer, they can make the ROI calculation. So potentially, this is not finalized yet, but could be for 99 cents per year, you can now have offline support. And when the consumer says I’m going to save 25-30 dollars, I just have to pay a dollar, it’s a great deal. And we have the other bucket of a set of 10 features, 10 premium features which is a collection, more like a basket of utility and various consumers, but that would probably be priced around $4 per month, subscription plan.

Martin: And Cooliris is for the aggregation of photos and BeamIt is for the sharing photos. Currently, both of these applications are separate. What is the reason behind that and why shouldn’t it be totally integrated into one product?

Soujanya: It’s a really good question. I think, if you would have asked us this question to me 2-3 years ago, I would’ve said absolutely, it should be one product. What we are finding over and over again, and this is also, you’ll find it with other applications, is the thing that consumers really accept in the market and adopt is this singular intent, which is, if I’m thinking messaging, I’m going to go to this app, if I’m thinking media, I’m going to go to this app. So, it’s really one experience, but depending on what you are trying to do, so we have concept of t minus 3, which is 3 seconds before you use the app, what were you thinking and that thought process. From that point to actually invoking the application, has to be so efficient, you’re from Germany, so efficiency, you know what I mean, it has to be so frictionless, that the consumer can get to it fast. If you make it into one app, all of these things and features and capabilities, sometimes you’ll say wait a second, what do I do. If you make the consumer think, you lose the consumer. So, idea was to keep it, be able to talk to each other very seamlessly, so I can aggregate them in one area, if I want to take that and then use it for my conversations, we haven’t yet launched it, but that will come down the road, I should be able to do that, but if I just want to use it for my messaging, I just want to send Hamon something, or Sebastian, or Austin something, I should be able to do that on the fly.

Martin: Understood. Let us take a step back and talk a little bit about mobile marketing. What advice can you give entrepreneurs of frameworks, so they can decide for themselves how to do mobile marketing for their mobile application?

Soujanya: It’s a super important question. I think the, in the app economy, if you really think about it, I think the, I do find a lot of startups and, we’ve done that too, I wouldn’t say that not, is let’s build the app. Building the application is actually the easy part. I mean, relatively speaking. It’s marketing the application is where the challenges lay. There are not that many sort of secret sources out there, there’s very clear understanding of: what are you building; what audience are you trying to build towards; is your differentiation unique enough, not just is it unique, but is it significantly more unique than a substitute that’s out there; are you having clear understanding of your substitute; how is it that you’re going to create a positive network effect from the application.

I’ll give you one great example of what we did at BeamIt. Most messaging applications require a two parties who are going back and forth to have the application. We took away that constraint. We said, if I want to communicate with you, I should be able to do that, and you do not need the application installed. And that actually creates a very low friction and barrier for me to message to you. If you do join, then the network becomes stronger, so the positive network effect comes in. So, what I’m trying to get to really tangibly answer your question here is, from the consumer’s perspective, the application, the business that is looking at that say is there a positive network effect that’s going to happen, so that product is going to grow on its own. Because anything else that you’re going to, that you can do, if the product is featured, or you have press around the product, or there’s some temporary marketing that you did an event, or some sponsorship, it’s going to give you a blip, and hopefully it’s a new baseline, but the growth comes from the product propagating itself, which comes from the usage of the product.

CORPORATE STRATEGY

Martin: Let’s talk about the corporate strategy of Cooliris. What is the product strategy that you are going forward? Because currently you have these two type of products, and you have this freemium model, and can you elaborate on this kind of matrix and how it will evolve over time?

Soujanya: The high level strategy for us is to have a good, solid, engaged user base. People will talk about what are your active users and all, and we actually look at what are your engaged users. Are they really using the product or not? So, by having both of these applications, today we are iOS only, which is a, I’ll be first to admit it, it’s actually partly limitation because when I’m messaging somebody, they better be, I don’t even know, what my cousins that I’m going to send to, or my colleagues that I’m going to send to, whether they are iOS or not.

So we have the upcoming version of that, which is not launched yet, but it’s in the friends and family beta, and my other colleagues, Howard and I don’t know, have done a really great job of looking at it from the consumers perspective. So, if you don’t have the application, you receive an email, from the email you click on the link, you’re on the landing page. How to make that on boarding very, very seamless is where the application served its value.

The second big value it serves is you have a lot of your high resolution media, whether you’re uploading those photos or you’re trying to download those photos, typically happens from the desktop or your laptop, or from the web, so you’ve solved for that. And of course you have the Android version which is significant portion of the market, which Austin, my co-founder, is leading the initiative on that.

So, the strategy is to have an ecosystem of Android, iOS and web, build it together, drive the synergy, increase the scale, simultaneously launch the premium features and grow the business. Partnerships becomes very important complement of the organic growth. This is something that Hamon here, who does that, he traveled around the world, China, Korea. We’ve done amazing partnerships throughout the world, where you work with companies, but are their OEM companies, or Telcos, or mobile internet companies, and see how they can benefit and we can benefit in terms of promoting our application. So, I don’t know if that helped explain.

Martin: Totally. And can you a little bit elaborate on this type of partnerships, how you approach those companies and what is really the benefit for you and for the counterpart?

Soujanya: The quality of the app and the service has to be amazing enough for any partner to take you seriously. And I think we were luckily able to accomplish that. The way it typically works is each of the partner, depending on the segment they come from, OEMs look at it little bit differently, device companies, carriers look at it a little bit differently and then mobile internet companies. So I wouldn’t say there’s a one magic formula that fits everybody, of course it’s also not the case where for every company we have a different deal. At high level I would say we benefit because they will take our application and promote it to their users, they benefit because we will typically add something that makes it really cool and unique for them, so maybe it’s a feature or it’s a way to save couple of these features if you’re prepaying for them and now they could free for your user base for X amount of time. And, in the case of some other partners, in the case of Cooliris, for instance, we were able to be the first company to issue APIs to any company around the world, not just US or Chinese company, or big or small company. And they did it because we were able to showcase the best experience for their cloud storage inside our application, so they benefited from that. Sometimes these companies will say, “Can you promote our service, the cloud to the service and market aside from their core markets?” And of course, we’re willing to do that, in the exchange for them promoting our app to their user base. So, it’s always a mutually beneficial relationship. I think finding that common ground sometimes takes X amount of time, but that’s exactly what the team does and makes it happen.

Martin: Ok, great.

MARKET DEVELOPMENT

Martin: From my understanding, Cooliris is somehow in this photo and sharing market. Can you tell us a little bit more about this market and the trends that are currently happening in there?

Soujanya: It’s a good question, because I think photos and sharing, there was a period in time, I think it’s slowed down now, but like every week there are 10 startups in the photo sharing or photo something. It has gotten a little bit better because people and companies have realized as to there are the newer trends that are coming here. The idea is, photos is not just what we thought of as photos. Today, it’s become much more of a medium of communication, even if you’re going to something like Snapchat. It’s a good way to communicate, it’s affirmable so of course it goes away, because it solves for this particular use cases.

On the other side are the segments, so talking about market segments, we have designed BeamIt as a product thinking about families and close friends. It’s really been designed ground up for their needs. And that’s not what Snapchat does, Snapchat is made for your friends to follow fun stuff, the dessert, funny faces, and all that kind of cool stuff. But when you’re looking at trying to preserve that in high resolution, the babies, you’re starting with your baby’s first step, maybe just a goofy face that the baby is making in a restaurant, but you want to preserve that for the longest time, you’re looking in full resolution, you will share it with people that you care about. So, photos and sharing have now become almost synonymous. Yet, when you’re looking at it, that’s why we have these two lenses, photos is the Cooliris lens and sharing is the BeamIt lens. It’s really under the same phenomenon, as far as companies going at it and approaching at it that there’ve been various theses, like you can look at it as company says I think this is what’s needed. Some companies are saying like I don’t even think a photo is needed, even the keyboard is not needed. I’m just going to say, I have another friend actually, he has a company, they did an app called Hearts app. And you press it and then the other person receives the heartbeat. Really cool. Nothing more, it’s similar to messaging, but there is no keyboard that even comes up. So, many, many companies, I think attacking this thing from a different angles, you also have the big companies, some really, really great companies, actually approaching this from more different style than I do, you have startups, so it’s a very fun ecosystem, is what I would say.

Martin: Ok, great.

ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS

Martin: Soujanya, you have started several startups. Can you elaborate a little bit on your learnings over the years?

Soujanya: I wouldn’t say several startups, but yes, I think I’ve had the pleasure of being in the Valley here for some time and a couple of startups now. The learnings have been very interesting, I think the, back in the day when I used to see, and sometimes I even see it today, people talk about the word “risk”. Is it risky to do a venture? Absolutely, no question. But, there’s actually a bigger risk if you did not try. I think that has been my biggest learning, which is if you truly believe in it, you better have that conviction, you better have the stamina, and the endurance, and these are all attributes that I think go about do you really believe in it or not. So, say yes I believe in it, and at that particular point in time, the level of risk is much, much lower for you to try then you do not try.

Martin: Ok. Can you distinguish between the risk as an entrepreneur and the risk as an employee or not doing a startup?

Soujanya: So, I think it’s the same. I mean, firstly we don’t think of employees as employees and co-founders, it’s one team. Ultimately, you are going to do this, you’re going to succeed together, or you’re going to fail together. That’s the only way in terms of the mind. So, quantity of risk doesn’t really matter. It’s like are you going to succeed as a team, or you’re going to fail as a team. We don’t make a distinction, hopefully, Hamon can confirm on that and others can too. So I don’t feel that we have this issue of you have more risk and I have less risk. I think if people felt that way, they’re probably in the wrong company.

Martin: And are there any other learnings, maybe in terms of customer development? I think it’s quite hard to convince, for example the bigger players and partners. Or, maybe launching a mobile app and growing the user base does work?

Soujanya: I think that learning comes down to something that maybe I repeat what I’ve said for a different question, which is: it’s don’t get too hung up on I build the app and now I succeeded. In fact, your hard part starts at that particular point in time. Getting it distributed, getting it to be used, getting it partnering with other companies, that’s where a lot of the challenges lie. So you’re going to need more stamina, more runway to get you to accomplish to do that, and of course, success, don’t gain success too early, because so many changes are happening in the ecosystem that you got to constantly stay ahead.

And the second piece of advice that I think, personally that I’ve learned, and I don’t know if it’s applicable or not, it’s a very, very interesting and delicate balance between how much are you investing for today and how much are you investing for tomorrow. That balance is a very dynamic thing, it’s not like it’s 50:50, it’s 30:70, you cannot assign that. If you overly put all your investment, everything is about the future, everything strategic, I think you can get screwed. If you say everything is about today, very, very tactical, I think you may wake up one day and say wait a second, where did I land? So, maintain that balance of what is strategic and what is tactical it’s a constantly challenging exercise, there is no magic formula and you just have to do it on your own.

Martin: Ok. Great, thank you very much, Soujanya. And I’m pretty sure we should take a photo right now and then share it via BeamIt.

Soujanya: Cool, but more importantly, use BeamIt to share it.

Martin: Right, awesome, thank you very much.

Soujanya: Thanks.

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