As told to Mitali Mathur
Vaishali Neotia is the co-founder and CEO at Merxius Software – a highly awarded technology innovation company. At Merxius, she is responsible for all executive and strategic decisions of the company.
An engineer from Osmania University with a first class degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering, she went on to add the Indian School of Business and Stanford Graduate School of Business to her educational experience.
She is a fellow of the Startup Leadership Program and currently also a Program Leader. She also speaks on women entrepreneurship and has been a guest speaker at the Grace Hopper conference as well as at the ICFAI Business School.
Merxius is a privately owned, multiple award winning technology Innovation company, that works with Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Interactive and Web technologies. They create innovative products for the defence, health care and marketing sectors.
MERXIUS and AUGMENTED REALITY
1) The recent win by Merxius in the ‘Augmented Reality’ category of the Aegis Graham Bell Award 2014 is laudable. Did you expect to bag the award?
To be very honest, we gave a very good presentation and our product is brilliant. We were overwhelmed on winning this – It is a big deal for a micro enterprise to take part in a national level award and then win it. It felt like the culmination of all our efforts and hard work up till that point.
2) Tell us about the award winning MARMO. How did the concept come about?
MARMO stands for Mobile Augmented Reality Platform for Machine Maintenance and Operations. It is a platform on top of which Augmented Reality apps can be built. In early 2014, after having spent two years looking for the right people for the task, the Army approached us to build an AR app to help with their machine operations. It just so happened that we were working on a similar idea.
We built upon our initial work and with the added research, MARMO was born. We built a prototype for the Army using MARMO. The first version was shown on a tablet and from there on we have been trying to fix on the right head mounted device. There have been some concerns with the Google Glass not being industrial grade, so we are looking at other devices also.
MARMO works wherever heavy or complex machinery is involved. It takes the content of instruction manuals and overlays them on top of the machine itself. The same flat boring content is now presented in the form of computer generated models and animations, but overlaid on top of the machine itself. This eliminates “context-switching” where the machine operator has to read the book for instructions then look at the machine. This not only reduces human error, but also improves efficiency. Also, the data can be presented in multiple languages, thereby eliminating any language barriers.
MARMO is capable of a lot of different types of applications, for very diverse fields. Any industry which uses heavy machinery can use this to their advantage. Whether they want to use this app for their internal training purposes or consumer related purposes, both would work.
So, if tomorrow a consumer electronic company approaches us to create an app for their washing machines with really complex panels which their customers do not know how to operate; then they can directly tell their customers to download this app instead of reading manuals or asking the company to send in service engineers for every small thing. In the automobile industry, customers can use an app like this to change the oil themselves by following the instructions, instead of waiting for the mechanics to do it for them. Automobile companies can also use it for their internal purposes when they are maintaining engines or working on some parts. Their workers can use this to maintain and operate their machines instead of wasting time on training them. It makes the entire process so much more efficient- saving time, increasing output and also reducing human errors. It all becomes very simple.
3) What is the future of Merxius, and of Augmented Reality?
Merxius wants to be a renowned technology innovation company in the world. Currently, we are working on AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) and if in future these have more advanced versions then we would like to work with them too. The larger purpose of the company itself is that we would like to see people enrich their everyday lives with the use of technology. We do not believe in the whole concept of AR and VR being the technologies of the future, because for us the future is now since we have the right tools and access to information and knowledge and the world is quite equal in that sense. So now in India, when all of these things are possible, we want people to realise how they can harness the power of technology to better their lives.
Augmented Reality is already a huge market world over. There are millions of dollars of investments already made on it and it is estimated that there are about 1.4 bn downloads of AR applications to happen in 2015. The market is expected to grow to $1.06 bn in the next 3 years. It is growing at a very good rate and its acceptance is also increasing. People are still ignorant as to the power of AR and VR and the brilliant applications that we can develop using them. The technology has already existed for a few decades and now is the best time to use it since the powerful devices needed for these apps are now easily available.
4) Startup Leadership, as you mentioned, has been an important part of your life. From SLP fellow to Co-Program leader, what has your experience been?
It was great for me, personally, when I joined SLP, to meet the class because until that point I had met entrepreneurs in the city and there was this general camaraderie, but the kind of camaraderie that generates when you are in a classroom together gives the feeling of being in a family. It was nice to soundboard ideas, discuss things with them and the interaction with the people who came to talk to us from the industry was simply great. There was this ‘Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon’ Every event that I went to, I would always see somebody from SLP – even at different places that I hung out at, suddenly there was someone from SLP there – it was like somebody of my own everywhere. Family and familiarity. Apart from that, there was the journey from being an SLP fellow to a Co-program lead – Interestingly, I was offered the position of a Program Leader, but I turned it down because I did not feel that I would have the right amount of time to dedicate to this as this is a role with a lot of responsibility. With the things that were going on in my company, I just could not do justice to that. The current PL is brilliant by the way and he’s doing a very good job.
As a Co-Program Lead, I feel that the contribution that comes as being a part of the team and especially since I am the only woman here, bringing my perspective into things is an interesting experience. It was my responsibility to make sure that the current batch had a decent number of well-deserving women in it, to further the whole concept of balancing entrepreneurship and having more women representatives in SLP. It was great to feel that I was encouraging others, especially women, and the reason that I am stressing on women is not because I am gender biased, but because in the Indian society it still happens that women are not often given the opportunity to be literate. So with that kind of a society, women, especially in their 20s, are just running against time. They have to fulfil their wishes of doing a Masters or having a job or fitting in whatever in they can before they get married. All of that has to be crunched into the time frame that they set for themselves, up to the age of 30. Maybe this exists because it is believed that the biological clock ends at 33, but now it doesn’t really hold true with many advancements in science. We women just set these age limits on our lives, and therefore lose out on something like entrepreneurship because what entrepreneurship requires is time, struggle and above all patience and when you are running against time you have none of these to spare. It is really great for me to see women entrepreneurs, from my ISB group, from the many women organisations I am a part of and every other woman that I have met, managing their households, their children and also handling their careers. It is very inspiring. Today, I feel that all we need to be women entrepreneurs is just the drive and the initiative, because we can do so many things and it is just the self-realisation and belief in ourselves that shows us our true potential which is way beyond what society expects of us.
ENGINEERING IN INDIA
5) India has always been amazing with its engineers. A lot of them, however, leave the country resulting in a brain drain. What are your views on this?
Luckily for us, this kind of a brain drain has reduced over the years. This improvement is purely because of the whole opportunity and ecosystem that people see here. All that engineers need to grow and thrive are the right opportunities, and the right ecosystem. Things have changed and people are realising that there are good companies here. In fact, with the whole startup system, there were people who would leave and go and startup in the US because they did not have the right exposure and the right companies here, but now this has changed significantly. There are so many good startups that have been set up in India in the last few years. The trend is slowly changing and what we could probably do to further push or reduce this brain drain is to make sure that we create the right ecosystem and we keep the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation alive. Once that support is there, people would not need to look for greener pastures. Even what SLP is doing, the way it’s fostering the entrepreneurship spirit in India, is just brilliant. We do not have to go to the US to be in an entrepreneurial ecosystem anymore. We are still not the same kind of crowd as there is in the US, but it is getting there and SLP itself is doing a lot in that direction. SLP is already present in about 6-7 cities, and slowly expanding.
6) Engineering is perceived as a male dominated field. The ratio of men to women engineers is, arguably, disappointing. How do you suggest our country should change this?
Women are in this race during their 20s, as I discussed earlier, and engineering is traditionally a year longer than the other fields. So even that extra year matters a lot when you are running against time. That could probably be one of the reasons why women tend to do it in lesser numbers. Now the ratios are not as bad as they were earlier. Maybe there is still a misbalance in the traditional fields like civil and mechanical, but in fields like CS, EEE, EC etc., the situation is not that bad anymore. It all boils down to the same reason of how women are trying to fit all of this into the mentioned time frame. They are seeing this as a waste of an extra year and that’s why there are so many things that they don’t even have the opportunity to do. The change can happen with women changing their own mindsets, and pushing their families to understand and accept the same.
7) When did you decide you wanted to enter the sphere of entrepreneurship? Did anyone in particular inspire you? How did you envisage your future as a child?
Nobody in particular, but I could probably say that I have entrepreneurship in my blood since I am a Marwari. (laughs) But essentially I am a first generation entrepreneur in my family. It so happened that in the final year of my engineering, my present partner and I created a Facebook Application on the Football World Cup 2010 (in which Spain won). The App that we created was quite unique, fun and very well accepted. That gave a spark to a possibility that since we have some good ideas we could very well implement them. It all boiled down to that moment where we had to make the decision between doing an MS, accepting the job offers that we had and starting up. At that time, based on popular advice and what everyone else was doing we just had two options, doing an MS or taking up the job offers. So when we decided to take the plunge and start up, the first and only thing that came to our minds was that we anyways want to do this and if we don’t do it now then when will we do it – we were young and had nothing to lose apart from a few years of our lives. Later on in life you have so many more commitments – your families, cushioned jobs, loans and it gets more and more difficult to let all that go. We also knew that the kind of jobs that we were getting would anyway take us a good few years until we reached any decent sort of role that would actually help us grow as individuals. We knew that once we got into the safety and security of a well-paying job, it would be difficult to move out and start your own new thing. Even though at that point, there is some money and experience that one can ride on.
All said and done, we did not see a point in waiting because the knowledge we had at that point of time was sufficient to help us get started with what we wanted.
8.) What, according to you, are some of the common mistakes that startups make? How do you suggest they overcome these?
I advise that all startups should get a mentor, somebody who you can look up to, somebody who has knowledge about the field they are in. This would save you a lot of time in learning something on your own what somebody else could easily guide you upon.
Another thing that is very important is to have a co-founder. There is nothing wrong in starting alone, but from my own experience and what I have seen with other people, I think it is very necessary to have support. There is always this fear of co-founder conflicts-that the co-founder will ruin me or run away with all the money, betray me etc. All of that can be easily sorted out if you both get along at some level and you have a good and solid agreement when you start out. If you have these two things in place, it will smoothen out your journey. Predominantly, if you have a co-founder, there is this supportive system because what often happens with first time entrepreneurs is that they are adrift alone on the sea, so this way, at least there is somebody else on the boat with them. Even soundboarding ideas off of the other person and getting their perspective is great, because at some level- both of you have vested interests in what you are doing. There are a lot of battles in life which you have to fight alone anyway, but this one you really don’t need to.
FUNDING, CHALLENGES AND FEARS:
9) Now that Merxius has bagged such glory, it won’t be difficult to raise funds. Was it difficult in the initial stages of starting your company? How did you tackle this problem?
To be very honest, we have not actively approached anybody for funding up till now. First, because we were still stabilizing ourselves and second, because we have always been a services company and it becomes difficult to actually come up with a decent valuation in terms of getting funding. MARMO is actually our first product and now it is important for us to get funding because that will help us scale quickly. The way we have grown so far has been very organic, but to grow bigger and faster now, more resources would definitely help. I do think that the accolades and recognition that we have received will help open some doors for us, but nothing really guarantees funding because at the end of the day it is a business proposal and the wavelengths have to match and everybody has to get a fair deal out of it.
10) Were you afraid when Hasan and you began the company? What were the things you were apprehensive of? How do you see those fears today?
Our biggest apprehension was whether we would succeed or not, whether we would disappoint our families and ourselves. We were taking a huge risk and this was an opportunity cost, the last 4-5 years that we spent on this, we could have easily been in some well cushioned jobs and earning a very good salary. There was also the fear of the unknown- you always fear something that you really do not know anything about. The way we tackled this was simply by being very sure of what we wanted to do and we were also sure that the timing was right, that it had to be then. Also, with our families, even if they were not fully convinced of this step, they were always behind us and supported us. There were initial hiccups, but all of that gets figured out if you have the conviction in yourself. I think all that has paid up somewhere, we have gone through many ups and downs and there have been moments where we really needed motivation. We really enjoy what we do and have this conviction that technology is now and not something of the future. We really do want everybody to enrich their lives with the use of good technology. We want to be this technology innovation company that is doing this indigenously. (It is funny that you asked this today because earlier today somebody from my extended family called and we were having a conversation about Merxius’ recent accomplishments. They were admitting to me that they thought I was wasting my potential and that somewhere they had been disappointed, but now inspite of the fact that I was not fully supported, I have done this. They are very proud of me, and it was great to hear that, the belief somewhere is validated.)
11) Have you run into any problems in the course of managing Merxius? What was the nature of these problems? How did you overcome them?
The biggest problems are always the financial hassles. There are other problems that come and go, but this is the devil that is always hanging on top of your head. We have managed so far by taking incremental investments from our families as loans, and we have worked with other companies in the sense that we have created interesting and innovative applications for them. A lot of times our own ideas took a backseat because we did not have the time or resources to work on them. We have not fully overcome it, but it is a constant process- allocating budgets and balancing. It will become easier if banks give loans easier, and collateral free instead of just having that on paper; And if governments could provide funds for deserving companies to scale faster and grow.
Another thing that was prevalent initially but has thankfully reduced now, is not being taken seriously. So when we started out, at that time, the startup ecosystem was not so well developed as it is right now. Every time we told people that we were a startup, they thought that it was an experiment and did not really take us seriously. We were like two little kids experimenting. And that was not very encouraging. Thankfully, things have changed and we are now a micro-enterprise and not a startup anymore. The way we overcame that problem was by taking ourselves seriously and we were very clear with what we wanted. We did not use the startup tag to get people to treat us differently, unless in exhibitions etc where we wanted a little bit of funding (we would tell them that we are a startup so please give us discounts).
Another problem that has been there is hiring the right kind of people and resources. We now take a lot of interns but initially, we were very apprehensive about taking somebody full time – the pressure of somebody else’s responsibility and salary was huge. In fact, even now, we take a lot lesser salary than what we pay our people. Taking this responsibility was a huge fear for us and for a very long time we did not hire anybody fulltime. And when we did hire somebody, it turned out that he was only interested in the money and somebody who wasn’t really serious about his work. It felt bad because we had hired after a lot of deliberation, but we did not let that daunt us. So we went ahead and hired more people, we learnt from our mistakes and knew what to look for. We made sure that there was a lot of good communication within the company. With all of our employees, we do not follow a hierarchical system, it is more of a heterarchical one. We are all on the same plane and there is open communication, where we have weekly meetings and discuss everybody’s work in front of everybody else, we discuss plans and projects for now and for the future. Apart from keeping the communication lines open all the time, we also make sure that everybody takes out some time in the week to just work on their ideas or something that they like- that keeps the whole innovation and spark going. We are flexible with them and have had a discussion with them regarding their salaries, so that everyone is on the same page and there is no dissent. These small things have really helped us and luckily our current team is quite stable and we have had them for a while now.
GENDER AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP
12) Do you think the trends, with regard to gender and entrepreneurship, are changing?
In entrepreneurship, apart from the general fact that there are certain problems that women face, you can also extrapolate and say that there are men also who do not become entrepreneurs so easily. It is just that for women it is even lesser based on the opportunities, society and their own realisation. With entrepreneurship in general, there aren’t many people who are doing it. Entrepreneurship should not just be about starting up a company, it is also at every level and in everything that we do in our daily lives. Being an entrepreneur is taking initiative, leadership, being innovative and having the spirit to act. Even in a job, or if I am working in my father’s company or somebody else’s company, I think I can still innovate and have that entrepreneurial spirit in me. Right now, it is quite crushed in most people because even though they may have this kind of a spirit, it is more often than not throttled when they join certain jobs where their ideas are not accepted. They are slowly bogged down by bureaucracy and hierarchy and I think that this is something that needs to be addressed. It can be changed by all of us individually if we keep at it and see that we have the potential to do more than we already do. There is this very interesting quote that I read somewhere- “people judge you by the extent of their potential. If someone says it’s impossible, it is for them, not you.” A lot of times people forget this – we do not know the extent of our own potential.
13) Now that your company has beaten some of the giants, like Times Alive and Aircel, it must be an exciting time for you. What are you currently working on?
We are currently working on Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality and we are doing a lot of simulation work around it. We are currently focussing on defence, automobiles and looking at exploring consumers electronic companies because now that we have the product we can build a lot of applications on it.
14) The AR field is highly popular these days. The Google Glass is a revolutionary product, but unaffordable for the common man. Do you think this shall change in the near future?
Firstly, there are other devices as well, but it is just that Google knows how to market its products very well. This is there with everything, so for example today the IPhone6 is for 70,000 and after a couple of months it will come down to 50,000 and once another version comes out, it will drop further. With technology, it always starts out expensive, but depending on the innovation in the same device itself, prices do start becoming more affordable. The Google Glass at present is extremely expensive, but it is not really ready for consumer use. The problem with the glass right now is that it does not have a lot of battery. As a device itself, it is not really evolved so much that a developer can use it. So for mass usage and consumer usage, they will have to create another version. The price barrier is something like the chicken and egg thing, that exists because there is no real need for the consumer and because the price is so high the consumer feels that there is no real need. With better and more powerful versions, the price of the glass will possibly drop. There are a lot of competitive devices in the market and some of them are priced lower than the glass. The era of wearable computing is pretty much upon us now.