Bangalore Startups’ AMA with Kiran Jonnalagadda, founder of HasGeek and Hasjob

HasGeek website
Kiran Jonanalagadda

Q: Would you like to see your daughter become an entrepreneur some day? — Amrith Shanbhag

Absolutely, but I’m no longer fascinated by the entrepreneur thing. If everyone’s an entrepreneur, where are the employees? I stopped organising hackathons a couple of years ago because we hit peak entrepreneurship. Every single person who came was an entrepreneur. Nobody closed a hire. They were all busy trying to recruit each other all night.

We prefer to do collaborative hackathons where people are meant to help each other do something fun and learn in the process, but the space has been ruined by all the hackathons that are for hiring.

Q: You did an AMA on Secret. Why Secret? Did you want people to be behind the masks to shoot questions at you which otherwise they would not normally ask? Or was it a PR stunt? — Harsha MV

Secret was getting popular at that time. It always helps to go where the crowd is going, but I also thought Secret had potential. Secret blew it.

Q: Why do you think Secret blew it? — Kartik Mandaville

Secret was on the cusp of something interesting pointing in the Wikileaks direction — a watchdog environment of sorts — but that approach wasn’t commercially viable, so they pivoted into something else that had no life at all. Also because Secret was based on your existing social graph, you weren’t getting trolled by complete strangers, just people you actually knew who didn’t dare tell you in person. Secret was a fantastic way of getting confidential feedback that you actually needed to hear.

Q: So what do you think is the future of entrepreneurship? Collaboration and democracy amongst employees or what? — Amrith Shanbhag

I prefer the academic viewpoint. Ronald Coase won a Nobel prize for explaining how it works about half a century ago. Coase’s Theory of the Firm examined why people bother to be employees when everyone could be freelancers, and he explained transaction costs in negotiating each assignment vs just taking a salary, and that eventually led to a Nobel prize.

Q: HasGeek has been coming out with really good conferences. Is there real money in it? 7 years ago it was something no one heard that often. Nowdays every one wants to do events for one thing or an another thinking there is a lot of money. What would be your advise to them? — Harsha MV

It’s like the telco business. At Re 1 per minute or less, you can bet they are barely making any money, but there’s so much volume in it that it looks huge. HasGeek loses about five lakhs every year overall. We sold a house to finance it, so basically that’s what’s leaking out a year at a time. People see the top line instead of the bottomline and assume we’re minting money.

Q: When you are burning so much money, why still be at it? Isn’t there a time when you realise you gotta tell this is done! — Harsha MV

About giving up: hope comes from watching the top line, not the bottom line, so it looks healthy right now. The belief is that if we make this space efficient, we’ll make profit.

Q: Can you share some stats about HasGeek Jobs portal. Love the site. I only post jobs there or through referrals. So am a little curious. Will you ever monetise from it? — Harsha MV

My inbox is full of people begging to give us money for posting on Hasjob. We only started tracking stats carefully on Hasjob this January. After looking at the stats, I was initially very depressed. We had been logging for a couple of years, but never looked at it. I ran a query to see how many days across a month a user was active on. The average: one, i.e, people use the site for one day and never come back. I became super depressed and wondered why we bothered. Later I realised I was stupid. This is not how you examine data. I was doing an average across all users instead of bucketing users. Just because there is a large steady stream of curious people who land on the site every day and never come back doesn’t mean the site has no regular users. So I googled for how to do percentile-based queries in Postgres and looked again. Surprise! The top user on the site was visiting every single day of every single month and that wasn’t me.

Hasjob traffic since 2013:

This is the query that generated it:

SELECT month, COUNT(user_id) AS users, PERCENTILE_CONT(ARRAY [0.5, 0.6, 0.7, 0.8, 0.9, 0.91, 0.92, 0.93, 0.94, 0.95, 0.96, 0.97, 0.98, 0.99, 1.0]) WITHIN GROUP (ORDER BY count) AS centile FROM (SELECT month, COUNT(day) AS count, user_id FROM (SELECT DATE_TRUNC(‘month’, user_active_at.active_at) AS month, DATE_TRUNC(‘day’, user_active_at.active_at) AS day, user_id FROM user_active_at GROUP BY month, day, user_id) AS month_day_user GROUP BY month, user_id ORDER BY month, user_id) AS daycounts WHERE month > ‘2013–01–01’ GROUP BY month ORDER BY month;

So if you look at it, 50% of users are present on one day and never come back. Because it’s 50%, a simple average will tell me the answer is one, i.e, nobody ever comes back, which is plainly wrong. Whoever that dude is at the 100th percentile is super dedicated (it’s not me, I checked). For all I know, it’s an agent for some other job board who is scraping for leads. I wrote this graphing code in January when we were having a bad traffic dip. I don’t know why, maybe people come back relaxed after holidays and decide they don’t want to look for a new job after all. Since Jan we started working actively on the site. No marketing, just new features and you can see the faint background bars which are the total number of active users that month. Feb and March have clear growth. If you’re thinking “just 4000 users?”, this is a website we built as a hobby project and have barely ever paid attention to.

HasGeek != Hasjob and most people don’t even realise this. (April has a sharp dip because it’s only the 2nd. This is live data).

Q: Is there a way in which you could turn into a leadgen service for vcs and startups to connect? — Arun Balaji

We try hard to automate everything. We have no extra hands to do one-off connections and other such activities, so we will do leadgen when we can make it a self service.

Q: So there is scope for more events? — Arun Balaji

If you ask me, we have barely a tenth of the events this ecosystem is capable of supporting. When you have too few events to choose from, every event tries to address as wide a range of people as possible, and when you have breadth you can’t have depth, so no event has really deep content that can only be understood by people who are really deep into the subject. Every event is just general knowledge gyan. We need a lot more competition between events to force people to focus.

I help review the talks for HasGeek events, so I see this as a particular problem with most speakers. When speakers don’t know the audience, they start with a basic intro to the subject and then go deeper, and when delivering, they usually run out of time before they get to the core content. My general advice is to dump the first 50% of their slides and figure out how to start from the second half. Not everyone takes it well.

The reason we keep getting such intro level content submitted is because if there aren’t enough events to choose from, every event has a large beginner-level audience who will be lost if you don’t start with an intro. For example, I just reviewed a talk about how some firm does design work for a client, detailing the entire process of understanding what the client wants and making sure they don’t deliver irrelevant results. The first 10 slides were all about how the industry is full of bad results and everyone misunderstands each other. I told them to dump those 10 slides. Everyone knows what the industry’s problems are, we’re interested in the solutions.

So the challenge for event organiser is: can you dare to do an event that excludes beginners? (If there’s competition, there’s no choice but to focus. If not, you’ll be tempted to expand scope.)

Q: But the side effect of this is that a lot of experts don’t find enough value at the events other than for networking. Events have multiple tracks. Why hasn’t that been used effectively to segregate beginners from experts? — Vinuth Madinur

A 2-track event costs 2x, so either there’s 2x the audience or everyone pays 2x. That’s not easy.

Q: How have your competitors’ events tuned to accommodate or compete with HasGeek’s events? — Kartik Mandaville

I know most of the other event organisers in india and we’re generally on good terms. Ajey Gore from Rubyconf is also on the editorial panel for Rootconf and Aravind Krishnaswamy ran editorial for Droidcon for three years before retiring and taking up PyCon. So there’s a fair bit of people moving around. People who really organise events understand how tough it is, and how much collaboration is required. People who sit on the sidelines tend to imagine there’s a lot of drama and rivalry (which, to be honest, exists, but only between people who haven’t met each other yet).

Q: How big is your team and what’s your philosophy for hiring? — Kartik Luke Singh

We’re between eight to ten people consistently. Most of the work is done by volunteers for the sheer fun of it. We try to pay everyone who commits to delivering their bit, so there’s people coming on a payroll and leaving and coming back again later. The full-time team is always around 8–10. I think the largest we ever grew to was 11. We’re currently 9.

Q: I’ve been following HasGeek for quite a while now. The constant changes that have come up seem iterative and well thought of. Have these changes been a *design* first approach? Where do you go through from here, in terms of design — Anirudh Shrinivas

Yes, design first. Back in 1999, I worked at Chip magazine around when they became India’s most popular tech magazine. This was before internet access killed the magazine industry. (Chip later became Digit, but the current Digit is a new avatar.) One of the reasons Chip was very successful was that we took design seriously. I learnt a lot there. That was magazine design, not information design, but it set me down the path of understanding what design was about. Later I came across the work of Edward Tufte and became obsessed. Tufte helped me understand what graphs really were, among many other things. When I started HasGeek, I had already been thinking around design for a good decade.

Q: How did you come up with the name ?— Harsha Kulkarni

Everything we do has geeks in it.

Q: Is HasGeek a full time job? — Harsha MV

Yes, completely!

Q: Why haven’t you thought about monetizing Hasjob? — Karthik Nagarajan

We’re experimenting with monetisation on Hasjob. Lots of little experiments ongoing. Maybe another month until we know what works.

Q: Are you interested in serving a platform to organise tech events? — Harsha MV

We have no particular interest in organising events. Communities build themselves when you provide an Architecture for Participation. Tim O’Reilly coined that phrase. you should look it up. There’s a related phrase. Mitch Kapor (who made Lotus 1–2–3) said “Architecture is Politics”. It takes a while to grasp the meaning, but it’s worth it. Look it up.

Q: Were you at some point fascinated and realised something that changed your mind? That’s true. Of course, everyone can’t be an entrepreneur. — Aamir

If everyone’s an entrepreneur, who’s working at those companies? I resisted starting HasGeek for almost three years. Entrepreneurship is a lonely, painful journey. You’re a genius or a stubborn idiot or a common garden variety human with no particular insight, and there’s no easy way to tell which one. So if everyone is off on these unproductive trips trying to figure out if there’s any hope down this path, who’s actually doing all the work to keep society running and to pay your own bills?

One of the curious thing about ancient Indian society (looking at it from the present) is that “sanyas” was this period in life when you withdrew from society because you had finished being useful. When Chandragupta Maurya (Ashoka’s grandfather) “retired”, he went on a pilgrimage down south, settling in the area near Sharavanabelagola.

In those days, retirement/sanyas meant you did this withdrawal thing where you wandered around, settled in some cave and sat there without eating until you died. It was supposed to be this journey of figuring out what your life was about. It’s the source of the modern analogy — mostly used in humour — of climbing a steep hill to meet some guru. In the modern version, you’re not supposed to wonder where that guru gets his food from. In the source material, the chap was sitting there waiting to die! Buddha went on such a sanyas trip, came out enlightened and started Buddhism. You could call him the original entrepreneur because that is what this trip is like.

Entrepreneurship is about this totally unproductive period of wandering around wondering what life is about and maybe you’ll have some bright idea that will change the world forever. Only Mahaveera, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Confucius and one or two other fellows went on such trips and came out with ideas that changed the world for millennia. Everyone else just became the funny story about the guru on top of the hill.

Somehow in the current decade we’ve become fascinated with sending people off on such trips, with some money to keep them alive, and maybe they’ll change the world in six months flat. It’s just bizarre. I mean entrepreneurship trips, of course. Quit your job, pursue this wild idea that everyone thinks is loony, and just maybe you’ll become the next billionaire. We’re glorifying entrepreneurship to the point of absurdity. Your life is much better if you remain productively engaged in society instead of taking off on such a soul-crushing trip.

Discussion about Entrepreneurship and HasGeek continues…

The event scene in India was so bad when we started that within a year of taking a scientific approach to it, we started making serious money. Revenue increased 20x in two years. By the end of year two, with just two co-founders doing most of the work, we were making 10x we had ever earned as employees. Of course we were spending it all too, but WE were spending it. As first time entrepreneurs, the distinction between spending disposable income and spending on necessary business expenses gets blurred. If you have the power to spend, you must be rich, right? So you do whatever it takes to keep that tap open. By the time we got to 4 years, we realised we had gotten so busy raising the topline that we had forgotten about the bottom line. We weren’t automating enough.

Q: Ok when you were interested in blowing the top line what was the idea? Did you want to catch the eye of some VC or anything specific like that? — Shree Harsha

Nope, we’ve always been uninterested in VC. Most VCs I’ve spoken to are so busy trying to find the next deal that they can’t step back and think about what they want to achieve. So they’re always feeling insecure about the deal some other VC got, and they’ll try to make themselves comfortable by funding a similar startup. So when talking to VCs, you’re always describing yourself as the Uber of X or the Facebook of Y because, without a comparison, they don’t understand who you are. Not that they are not smart people. They’re just as overworked as the entrepreneurs are.

Every entrepreneur is shitting bricks about the fundraise another startup did, and which 20-year-old they’re not paying attention to will surprise them and take over the market. Including me. So you need this total zen-level calm to not get worked up every night. If it’s like this for entrepreneurs, imagine a VC handing out millions of dollars of other people’s money and promising to return it all. Totally shitting bricks too. So we decided we didn’t want this kind of stress. If it came to it, we’d only take money from semi-retired people with too much money and few worries, i.e, angel investors. So far we haven’t needed to.

Q: What do you think of Phani?(Founder of — Acquired by Ibibo) Did he just exit like a second before the VC boom? Or was he always in for the sell out?- Shree Harsha

Phani is more a product of his times than you may realise. RedBus was funded by Seedfund, which had an eight year fund — ie, they promised to return money to investors eight years after borrowing it. So as they got closer to the eight year mark, they had to sell their stake in redBus. There was no choice. The only two options are to (a) sell to some other fund or (b) sell to a corporate buyer. They found the latter. So having more funds in the market these days is good because companies can remain unsold (to corporate buyers) longer. Profitability doesn’t mean much when you have VC funds. VCs have to return the principal to their investors, not a share of profits, so they had to sell redBus to someone or the other.

Q: What do you mean not the share of profits back to the HNIs from VCs? — Harsha MV

I mean redBus dividends. A profitable company pays dividends. By definition VCs can’t give their upstream investors redBus dividends. That wasn’t the deal. The deal is they return the principal plus interest. When you take external money, you have to be aware of how this works for everyone up and down the chain. Usually learning this is a distraction from also developing your company’s market, so most first time entrepreneurs with VC funding tend to get overwhelmed and make missteps.

Q: How much of this did you know when you started HasGeek? — Raviteja Jayanti

Almost none of it. I only knew the fairy tales of how glorious entrepreneurship is, and how Bill Gates made so much money from Microsoft, and how Sabeer Batia made so much money from Bill Gates, and you could be the next chap in this chain. That’s pretty much how the common public understands it.

Continues about…

Ok, so I worked with Phani’s team before most people had heard of redBus, back when he was just out of college. I used to work at a company called Comat and we used to operate computer telecentres in 800 locations in rural areas around Karnataka. We were looking for computer-based services to sell to rural citizens.

This was in 2007. Flipkart had also just started and people in villages weren’t exactly buying books, but they did travel. We approached redBus about selling tickets for them, but since villagers don’t have credit cards, we had to collect cash at the shop and give it to redBus separately. So redBus made an entire second version of their website just for us that had everything except the payment gateway.

They were an incredible team and all just recent grads with nothing but excitement for the opportunity. The way they handled this deal may sound obvious to you, but the same year we approached [a big insurance company] to sell insurance policies. Their business people came to meet with us and we told them villagers can’t buy insurance from their website with credit cards. We just needed single-sign-on for our operators and they could keep a virtual account of the sales so we could pay them based on each operator’s sales. The business people looked at each other and were upset. They told me this would involve bringing their tech people into this discussion and that would go nowhere, so they came up with another idea. They would issue individual credit cards to all our operators with the cooperation of their business people friends at the parent bank, and we could just pay the credit card bills of all our operators. Now we were suddenly going to become responsible for the credit card usage of 800 villagers we barely knew. The insurance people liked this idea. They didn’t have to waste time with their tech team and their friends in the bank got some business too.

Phani was running the show at redBus then and he ran it until exit — which as far as I can tell neither Seedfund nor redBus enjoyed having to get into. Exit sale, I mean. Huge respect for Phani for what he achieved.

You know what’s funny and ironic about this? In 2007, I was a Program Manager at Comat [overseeing the tech team], a bit too high up to be directly interacting with the redBus team. My team worked with their team. I never even met Phani, I just knew we had a deal going for one of many services (while I sat in meetings with the CxOs of banks, etc). He was also several years younger. Today he’s a well established successful entrepreneur figure and I’m just this dude doing this crazy thing that no one knows is sustainable in the long term.

That brought our AMA with Kiran to a close. It was rad!

Passing advice from Kiran: “Read this book, If this doesn’t make you a better entrepreneur, I don’t know what will.” — Kiran

Kiran’s take on Net Neutrality:

There’s something more serious all of you should be aware of. I hope you know that there is a very significant likelihood India will lose network neutrality this year. TRAI makes the rules and over the last few years they’ve more or less turned into an industry-friendly body with almost no representation from citizens. They are currently running an open consultation on whether India needs network neutrality and their opinion document makes it very clear that they intend to remove it. Medianama has been highlighting the bad news and how you can shame TRAI into backing down.

TRAI’s Internet Licensing and Net Neutrality Consultation Paper: Simpler, Shorter Version
A group of us have worked over the last four days to create a shortened version of TRAI’s consultation paper and Net Neutrality. We’ve converted the 118 page document into a 23 page document, reduced redundancy and largely irrelevant data. It’s been restructured in MediaNama style to (9KB). Please don’t waste your time on signing internet campaigns. They don’t help. TRAI has clearly asked for an email with answers to 20 questions. So you should send them that email CCing MediaNama and other press outlets so that TRAI cannot claim they didn’t get your inputs.
April 24 is the deadline. If people don’t participate now, there’s no point complaining when we lose net neutrality. TRAI is very likely to lie that they didn’t receive useful feedback from citizens only the media will be on your side to point out the lies. So CC MediaNama and other media that will support you.

Some of the stronger arguments that favor Net Neutrality — Kartik Luke Singh
1) As far as I know the core issue of NN is when a network starts paying attention to the content of the letters, and not in just delivering. And by reading the data in a packet, they are essentially breaking privacy
2) The exact mechanism by which this will be implemented, may actually put the network providers at risk — by breaching privacy they end up being witness to all sorts of illegal acts. (Course the lawyers they pay will ensure that contracts will be designed to prevent this liability. But it should be used as an avenue of attack)
3) More vexing is the issue where a service provider like wikipedia pays for their bandwidth costs anyway, and then have to pay extra, or get into an agreement which effectively skews the market place — to let the network behave as normal.
4) One of the ways they could achieve “fast lanes” is by making everything else slow down. Again, the consumers pay more for the same thing.
5) The fact that vodafone or who ever is losing money from their traditional system of revenue is also untrue — it can be argued that they wouldnt be selling so many phones, or so many connections if it were NOT for the various services the net enables.
6) India is one of the most advanced mobile markets in the world. There’s loads of data on the mobile telephony sector. The telecom companies are profitable, and are still getting paid for their services.

Lots of people had requested we get this one up on a Medium post because they couldn’t be on Slack to attend live. We want to thank Kiran for taking the time to chat with us. Total respect for this guy!

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If you are interested in the startup ecosystem and would like to network with fellow tech founders join the Slack group if you haven't already! Just fill out this form. If you have already filled the form, you would have received an invite. Contact @kar2905 or @harshamv if you have any issues. This AMA was summarized by @kartikluke and @karthik2502.

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