Throughout this series of interviews, I’ve talked to several non-tech entrepreneurs who’ve shared their insights and tips on building a startup.
So, in this interview – the 10th in The Startup Journey series – it was great to sit down with a technical founder – Adarsh Jain.
Besides that, it never ceases to amaze me the incredible stories we find in each of these conversations.
Your parents need a new TV. You go to an online store and try to order a shiny new set.
Problem is, fraud is a big thing in your country.
Some of these e-commerce platforms weren’t delivering to entire zip codes because of the number of fraudulent orders in some areas.
But your parents had nothing to do with that. How’s this fair?
Entrepreneurial moment #1: you decide there must be a better way to solve the problem.
You know a thing or two about tech and you approach a former colleague to talk about a potential solution.
Fast forward a couple of years and you’ve been the first acquisition of one of the fastest-growing fintechs in the world, RazorPay, just recently valued at – $3B.
Not only that, but RazorPay’s CEO is saying this about you:
“The team at Thirdwatch comes with an exceptional understanding and expertise in AI, machine learning and data sciences and together we envision a future where AI will help e-commerce firms not just combat fraud but maintain a competitive advantage and significantly improve profitability. Together, I believe we can help reduce frauds by 30–40% by next year.”
Now you can imagine how eager I was to sit down with Adarsh and pick his brain.
Throughout our conversation, he shared some amazing lessons and insights from his crazy ride, seasoned with his 12 years of experience as a CTO and entrepreneur.
Interview with Adarsh Jain, Founder of ThirdWatch
Rui: Adarsh, firstly, thank you for sitting down with us.
The story that I would like to discuss today is the one behind ThirdWatch.
So, can you tell us a bit about yourself first then a bit about the company?
Adarsh: Sure. So I am Adarsh. I graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, BHU, one of the top colleges in India.
Since graduating I have been part of both MNCs (Multinational Corporations) and startups.
The thing which excites me, however, is creating things from scratch, which can make people’s lives better. That could be in a small or large way, but it’s all about positive impact.
Before starting ThirdWatch, I was Head of Technology for a company called HT Mobile, which is part of one of the biggest media companies in India – Hindustan Times.
At that time, I was living in a city called Gurgaon which is on one side of Delhi. My parents used to stay in a city called Greater Noida which is on another side of Delhi.
I was trying to order a TV for my parents from one of the biggest e-commerce sites in India. Despite their size, they weren’t allowing me to order a TV to my parents’ address, even if I paid in advance.
I ended up having to order it to my place in Gurgaon, put it in my car and take it to my parent’s house.
And I couldn’t work out why this happened. So I dug a little deeper and I found out that companies block entire zip codes due to fraud.
The e-commerce site was blocking the area where my parents live and wouldn’t deliver anything of high value – even if it was paid for in advance.
I thought this was a bit unfair. Especially seeing as the whole area was affected because of a few bad apples.
With my background in technology, I thought I could solve this problem more effectively.
I wanted to identify those who were conducting fraudulent transactions, instead of blocking a whole area.
That was the genesis of ThirdWatch.
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R: That’s amazing and it’s probably the most common way to start a successful startup: You identify the pain point in the market, and then you go there and solve it.
It’s way better when you have the technological means to do it so thank you for sharing that.
Now I want to go a bit into the actual process.
So you had this idea you started thinking about it and started working on it. When did you know that you could go all-in?
A: The next step after the idea is the initial research.
So, how big is the market? Will people be interested in using this solution? Also, we’ve got to work out what resources we will need to make this a reality.
So we set about doing that. That was when I found out I was going to be a father.
So I suddenly had a dilemma. I’m going to have to handle not just a new business, but also a new baby.
I went to my co-founder and we discussed it. Based on the research he thought we could do it, and wanted to try.
So the main question for me was whether or not I had enough funds for my family to last for one year. You don’t want to end up with empty pockets with a new baby.
I did the math and decided I was in a good position to jump in. So we did, I wasn’t too afraid at that point.
R: So you took a risk. It’s clear you believed in the idea but you also set out to start this under some pretty amazing circumstances.
Having a baby, your priorities change a bit. So you had to be twice as brave to pursue this.
A: Exactly, and I didn’t want to do injustice to my baby or my company – which is also like a baby when you’re an entrepreneur.
R: Tell me something, you quit your job and went all-in without a product, while you were still in the research phase?
R: How did you validate that people would want to use the product?
A: Real validation comes with an MVP.
But before that, I wanted to get a sense of where the market was. And it may sound obvious, but we started by talking to friends.
Specifically, friends who worked in e-commerce.
My college also has a really strong alumni network. There are several WhatsApp groups where you can connect to alumni and that was very helpful.
We connected with lots of people in e-commerce. Those we connected with who weren’t active in e-commerce also put us in contact with people they knew who were.
So that’s how we conducted the initial research and that gave us a good idea.
But, of course, true validation comes from releasing the MVP.
Related: The Structured Process Behind Developing a Successful MVP [2020 Guide]
R: I think you did exactly the right thing with that early research.
Something I see with a lot of entrepreneurs is they focus too much on the idea they have. Or worse, they run to the market assuming the world will love their idea.
They don’t attempt to start validating before they build. In an ecosystem where many startups fail due to no market need it’s important to do what you did – talk to as many people as you can to reduce your chances of failure.
A: I completely agree. But I think the reason many people don’t do that is they’re scared the idea will get stolen.
I’ve realised that it’s a big world, if you’ve had the idea, someone else probably has too. What it really comes down to is how you execute that idea – that’s where the success is.
To execute an idea well, you need input from a diverse range of people. And that can’t happen unless you share your idea.
A hundred people might have the same idea as you. But most likely you’re the only person willing to put the work into it to make it succeed. Because the work is the hard bit, the work is where the money is made
Wade Eyerly, Founder and CEO of Degree Insurance
R: I completely agree. And not only that but also most people in a position to do so are either too busy doing their own thing or simply lack the commitment to pursue it.
In the end, it’s all about the team you have, and the resources you use, to execute your idea. And other people’s feedback and insights can make a crucial difference.
Talking of execution, I want to talk a little about the MVP.
How did you decide which features to add to the MVP and which did you decide would wait for future iterations?
A: So the initial features, we decided based on the brainstorming and the studies and research we had done so far. Specifically, we saw their APIs, the kind of parameters they were capturing, etc.
We drew inspiration from that and customised it for the local environment.
The combination of these two things brought us to what we thought was the minimum needed to test the product.
It helped that we had industry experience before building ThirdWatch. It gave us a business understanding of the product which helped us identify the right features.
Once we had the minimum features we thought we needed we went and discussed it with a senior technical person.
We had planned on building an SDK (Software Development Kit) first and integrating it into the app. He said it would be quicker to first build the API.
This was a valuable insight that helped.
Related: How an Experience in Turkey Led to a Million-Dollar Startup [Founder Interview]
R: Did you build the MVP yourselves? Or did you hire someone else to do it?
A: We created the initial product ourselves. My co-founder and I are both coders.
One mistake I think we made here was that we tried to build everything perfectly. This lead to, sort of, premature optimisation.
It’s important to build to scale. But you shouldn’t focus on it too much.
You probably don’t need your first iteration to handle 100,000 requests per second, for example. It will be a few years before you’re dealing with those numbers – if you’re lucky!
This all happened because we were so in love with the product, and felt the ownership over our software – it’s a big responsibility.
Related: How to Build a Startup? CTO, Freelancers, Agency?
R: That’s a really interesting point.
We see a lot of entrepreneurs get caught up in making everything perfect and beautiful. At which point we nurture them a bit and remind them of the lean methodology because you must focus on the “minimum viable” part of MVP.
With that said, I completely agree that you need to think about scaling from the start. It makes no sense to build an MVP and then trash it, having to start over. But that doesn’t mean you have to have it all there right away.
And I completely see how you fell into the trap of optimising everything the first time. After all, it’s your face on show.
Your business is an extension of you and you’re taking that and showing it to the world.
When you are in that position it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you’re building a tool to validate a long term business vision, and it doesn’t need to be perfect right now.
A: 100%. It meant that we took a bit longer than it should have to build. So our time to market was a little longer than it could’ve been.
But when it was finally out, we got out first angel investor – who was my ex-boss.
This gave me a lot of confidence in the product – and went a long way to validate it in my mind.
He’d known me for about three – three and half years and he put his money behind us. That investment allowed us to move forward and raise our first round of funding.
R: This is a great example of why you should be sharing your idea with as many people as possible.
Not only did you go to a lead tech stakeholder for advice, but you also talked to your former boss and ended up with an investor.
But I imagine your ex-boss was also a sort of advisor as opposed to someone who just cut a check?
A: Definitely, he was more a mentor to my co-founder and me. He believed in us and stood behind us.
He saw the merit in the idea and how we planned to execute it. More than that I think he had confidence in our ability to execute it.
I think that’s what prompted him to not just put his money on the project but also put us in contact with more people in his network.
“You want to keep investors who really know your industry up to date weekly. Genuine investors can help you and want to work on your success — they’re not just a check.”
Paul O’Brien, Investor & CEO of MediaTech Ventures
R: So what he did was what the majority of early-stage investors do.
He bet on you, your founding team and the business vision behind your startup.
And none of this would’ve happened if you hadn’t reached out for advice and input from others. You were continuously looking for resources to help you grow, and it paid off.
Congratulations on that and on avoiding some of the most common pitfalls I see in entrepreneurship.
How did you use that initial investment to grow your startup?
A: So we mainly used the money to grow our team.
We also rented a small office space so we didn’t have to work from home. In my experience, it’s very easy to get lazy working from home. We needed to have a working space, even if it was small and not very costly.
Then later we put some money into marketing to make sure our product reached the right people.
The majority of the team were techies, driving forward the product development. Then we had help from an amazing designer.
He was more of a UX/UI person, which was great. I would show him what he had in terms of product and business vision and he would join it in his brain with his expertise and create something beautiful.
Related: How an Experience in Turkey Led to a Million-Dollar Startup [Founder Interview]
R: So you’re combining all the key aspects to shape a winning product: the business knowledge, the user experience and tech.
Again, you’re showing here a trait we see in the majority of successful entrepreneurs. Knowing your strengths, and finding top talent to help you with the things you’re not strong at.
So the first version of your product is taking shape, but what did your road to product-market fit look like? How long was it between the first version of the product and saying ok, we have a business?
A: There were a couple of things that influenced our journey to have a fully-fledged business.
Our first customer was extremely proactive in giving us feedback. Being an agile product, we made sure that that feedback made it into the product – both on the dashboard side and also the technical side.
Then we realised we needed to fill some gaps on the AI and IIML side of the product.
Although we were both technical, we weren’t experts on that side of things. So we onboarded a machine learning professor from IIT Kanpur.
He suggested experiments and helped us sharpen the AI side of things.
He also put us in contact with a former student of his who we hired as a data scientist.
It was around this time things started picking up.
We were implementing customer feedback, sharpening up the dashboard and strengthening the AI side of the business.
This carried on for three to five months. Then, in that sixth month, we were fairly confident we had the full product and we could go after paying customers.
R: What was your strategy to onboard early customers?
A: Email and LinkedIn.
We had someone who would connect to the relevant people on LinkedIn or cold email them.
Again, I think when people see merit in a product, they react. The next step, typically, would be a video call or face to face meeting.
By that point, we would then be looking at integrating the customer.
Now, I think the trickiest part of this process was the integration part. Until then, and unless the integration happens, we can’t assist the customer.
Companies are apprehensive when it comes to sharing customer data – as they should be.
But if they don’t share, for example, the customer’s email address with us, then it’s very difficult to identify fraudulent behaviour.
So the biggest challenge was to assure the companies that their data was safe with us.
R: So you were selling a product that would help them prevent fraud, but you needed to overcome their fear of you being the fraudster because you were asking for sensitive information. That’s quite interesting.
How did you manage to build that level of trust?
The founder’s profile along with the backing of the company from a very prominent angel fund helped in the initial stages.
After that new customers can always do reference checks from existing customers which starts a virtuous cycle.
R: Let’s change gears, Adarsh. When you started, who did you have with you?
A: So initially it was just me and my co-founder.
Then we brought in a couple of freelancers like the design consultant and a few other people we knew in the industry.
I think it’s wonderful how people will help you in the early days and not demand money.
They were happy with the “we’ll pay you when we can” kind of relationship. I think without people who have this mindset and this passion it would be very difficult to build new products.
The first technical person we hired was someone we knew from a previous project as well. So we already knew he was going to be able to deliver.
Both the marketing guys we hired came from AngelList.
We’ve had a very good experience hiring people through AngelList. The great thing is there are a lot of people who are interested in startups on the platform.
Then what happens is when you hire talented people who’re passionate they’ll refer you to other talented, passionate people. For example, I hired a full-stack engineer from AngelList as well, then he referred a friend of his who was also a great fit.
When you realise that people want to help you, you also realize that you don’t need to pay a board of advisors.
There’s no point giving somebody stock to take a phone call they would’ve taken anyway. We’ve all needed so much help to get to where we are, that we understand and most of us are still calling people looking for help!
So when you call an entrepreneur and say: “Hey, can I get 20 minutes? I want to bounce an idea off you.”
The answer is: “Yeah. Okay.”
Every single time.
Wade Eyerly, Founder and CEO of Degree Insurance
R: That makes a lot of sense, when people are passionate about the project they want to share that – which can be great for your startup.
We talk a lot with entrepreneurs about the importance of choosing the right co-founder – so how did you meet your co-founder?
A: We’d worked for a long time before ThirdWatch, about six or seven years. I hired him straight out of college to be on my team for a previous project.
R: Perfect. Changing gears again. What did a “day in the life” look like when you first started ThirdWatch? Was it more like a 9 to 5 or more like 80 hour weeks?
A: I can tell you with absolute certainty it wasn’t like a 9 to 5 at all!
I think the best way to describe it is “we did whatever it took”.
Some days were heavier than others. If we were struggling with a feature or a problem then we would be spending the whole night in the office taking turns to sleep.
Other days it wasn’t like that at all.
We didn’t have a standard format. If we had a meeting one of us would go and the others would stay in the office.
Sometimes we would need to all come together to brainstorm a problem, other times we could just get on with what we had to do.
There wasn’t really such a thing as a “standard day” but I was maybe spending 11 to 12 hours a day working.
R: It makes sense. You need to do the work and you need to be flexible. Because without that, it’s going to be hard to do everything that needs to be done early on.
So how did you balance this with your personal life? Because by then you had a small baby at home.
A: All the credit there goes to my wife. She was the one who had to put up with me and manage without me.
One thing I did do was I tried not to work on weekends. I think if you try to work seven days a week you won’t even get two days worth of good work out of it.
Your mind and body need a couple of days to rest.
So on weekends, I was with my family. But without the support of my wife, I don’t think ThirdWatch would’ve been possible.
R: I love the fact that she’s not an unsung hero in your story. Family, wives, husbands, are critical to the success of any entrepreneur. They deserve recognition.
Now, I wanted to talk a bit about your acquisition from RazorPay.
You’ve got your product, you’re growing in the market, how did the decision to go down the route of acquisition happen?
A: We had two options in front of us. Commit to another funding round or get acquired.
It came down to the question:
“How big is the market and should we diversify?”
And in that respect, we felt that going with an established company ensured more chances of long term success vs. working alone.
The acquisition with RazorPay came through our network of investors.
Related: Selling a Fintech Before Launch by Leveraging Your Most Valuable Resource: People
R: I see, so you actively sought out RazorPay because you felt like you could benefit from a bit more muscle to really penetrate the market.
How was the negotiation? Did you face any challenges in the process?
A: The conversations were, I’ll say, decent. The RazorPay team were also startup people and I think that was a key element.
I don’t believe in hard negotiations because I believe it’s about long-term success and partnerships – and we were lucky with RazorPay.
That being said, the negotiations did go on for some time, but it went well.
R: That’s a super important point. Sure, with hard negotiation you can get a few more cents but it will lead to a relationship that’s more likely to deteriorate over time.
I have just a couple of finishing questions for you now.
First, what was the biggest lesson you learned building ThirdWatch that you’ve carried with you?
A: Don’t over optimise prematurely. Don’t worry about getting your MVP perfect from day zero, get it out there to test the market quickly.
Next, what would you change looking back?
A: Don’t try to focus on all the markets at once.
In e-commerce there are goliaths like Amazon, then there are smaller merchants who maybe do 1000 orders a month.
We tried to focus on both in the beginning. We split the team and had half working on the goliaths and half working on the smaller players.
This was a mistake. You need to choose one and focus on it.
Whenever I recall this mistake, I think about Steve Jobs famous quote:
“The most important decisions you make are not the things you do, but the things you decide not to do.”
Like he decided not to put a physical keyboard on the iPhone. If he hadn’t made that choice, the iPhone would’ve been a different product.
Looking back I wish I’d decided not to chase both. We were trying to focus on two very different customers with different needs.
R: This is something I often talk about.
If you try to be everything to everyone you’ll fail. You will spread yourself too thin. If you try and speak to too many different people, your message won’t land with any of them.
Your positioning becomes schizophrenic, your value proposition diluted and your messaging simply doesn’t land.
And it’s also important to stress that this is a business decision. It needs to come from the top. No marketer in the world will be able to solve the problem until that is figured out.
All of this to say, I completely agree. Pick a group of people – preferably the group of people that has the biggest pain – and focus on them.
Next, can you tell me one resource that was invaluable to your success?
A: There was a book I read in the beginning but it was very specific to the problem we ended up solving. It was all about fraud in India in the e-commerce space.
We got a lot of use cases from that.
Recently I found two things one is the book The Almanack of Naval Ravikant by the founder of AngelList, Eric Jorgenson. The other is a blog called Farnam Street. Those are resources I wish I’d had 10 years ago. They’re great for any new entrepreneur and will help you become a better person all around.
Another thing I’ve benefited a lot from is meditation. I recommend that to any entrepreneur. There’s a great meditation technique called Vipassana, there’s plenty of free courses online to help you get started.
You can check out this post for more details about the technique.
R: Great, I think mental wellness is really important for entrepreneurs and is definitely something that can fall by the wayside in the confusion of starting a business.
A: Definitely, I remember reading in the book the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It says don’t be so busy cutting trees that you forget to sharpen the saw.
R: That’s a great piece of advice.
This leads me to my final question.
What three pieces of advice do you have that are an absolute must for entrepreneurs starting now?
A: First, if you’re not in it for the long haul, don’t do it.
Second, it’s all about execution.
Third, have people around you who are better than you and make them a partner in your success – because then they will have the same motivation as you.
Thank You, Adarsh…
… For taking the time out of your busy schedule to sit down with us.
Adarsh’s story tells me that, whether you’re technical or not, building a successful startup begins with identifying a real problem people are facing.
Then you need to have the passion and commitment to take that problem and create a solution that solves that problem in the best way possible.