In a landscape where technology entrepreneurship in India often means launching, say, the eighth company that sells diapers online — where thousands of rupees are spent acquiring customers who don’t return, where the standard game plan is to outspend everyone else and triumph simply because you’re the last one standing — Vineet Devaiah’s product and its path to development offer a wildly different narrative.
Devaiah, 26, has what is considered the holy grail of tech investing: a potential killer app that facilitates crowdsourced panoramic images to build a community. “Considering where the market is moving, this is a huge opportunity,” says Devaiah’s mentor, Bala Manian, a US-based serial entrepreneur in the optics space, whose inventions were picked up by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic to make Return of the Jedi, amongst other films, and netted Manian both millions of dollars as well as an Oscar for technical advances in film.
Bangalore-based TeliportMe’s app, called ‘360,’ allows you to press a button on your camera and take a circular shot of the world around you, generate a panoramic, full-circle, hi-res picture of your surroundings and share it on Facebook or Twitter as well as Teliport’s website, and make comments.
|Dave McClure (500 Startups)|
|Bill Gross (Idealab)|
|Alessandro Piol (Vedanta Capital)|
|Great Oaks Venture|
|Steve Bennet and other angels|
It’s not that there aren’t other panorama apps for Android. Photaf, Occipital, Dermandar and Photosynth are amongst some of the leading ones that have cropped up in just the last year or two and have their own fan base as well as detractors. However, TeliportMe and Photaf clearly seem to be ahead of the pack.
Yet, to marvel at the app alone is to miss the infinitely bigger picture. “From the word go, our focus was on building a community. Others mostly focus on utilisation,” says Devaiah. It’s a ‘give away the razor to sell the blades’ sort of idea. Building a community of loyal, engaged app users is what made two-year-old photo app maker Instagram — with its 30 million devoted followers at the time — so attractive to Facebook that it snapped up the company for $1 billion this year.
TeliportMe is around a year-and-a-half old and far from being an Instagram, but according to Devaiah, the app’s fan base is growing rapidly. He states that Photaf, TeliportMe’s closest competitor, has a million unique users. TeliportMe, despite launching 18 months later, has logged 800,000 users and is growing by 2,000 new users a day. About 200,000 of them are active at least four times a month.
The question is, what do you flog using a panorama app? “Think about Trip Advisor,” says Devaiah, referring to the dominant travel information website that uses user-generated content. “You will, at the most, read four reviews of a hotel, but you will probably look at all the photos of the place,” he adds.
Therein lies the kernel of a gigantic opportunity. Devaiah isn’t forthcoming on the specifics of a future revenue model, but it doesn’t take much to envision what that could look like, for, say, the travel industry: Imagine you’re planning a white water-rafting trip. You key that into the site’s search bar. Up pop the panoramas of some of the most pristine white water in the world — the Nile, the Zambezi, perhaps something a little less hair-raising but accessible, like the rapids around Rishikesh.
Thanks to the slowdown, you think Rishikesh will do just fine, and click on it. Up pop a series of icons for preferred airlines, hotels, restaurants, car services, insurance, gear, cameras, SIM cards — anything that can be packaged and sold along with the vacation, via multi-vendor deals. “Look at the global travel industry, it’s ruled by the likes of Sabre and Expedia. These are all $30-billion or $40-billion companies in market cap. But their website views are horrible. If we provide a service compelling enough, we could get a small piece of that pie,” says Devaiah.
Imagining TeliportMe as a billion dollar company can be a surreal exercise considering Devaiah’s humble beginnings. A Coorg native, he was an only child, and grew up in a tiny apartment in Vasco, Goa. His father, he says, “had something like seven degrees but was an alcoholic”. This meant the family had to go hungry on occasion. Meanwhile, Devaiah, all of 13, stumbled upon the National Centre for Antarctica and Ocean Research just around the corner and soon started bugging them for data. Scientists there were mystified, even amused as to what this boy wanted to do with that, but were ultimately encouraging. They gave him access to weather patterns for the past 50 years on floppy discs and Devaiah, in turn, began reverse-engineering a program that could work with the data. An entrepreneur was born.
What followed is usually restricted to the stuff movies are made of. Devaiah ended up coding a program that predicted weather patterns fairly accurately, attracting the attention of Infosys, which paid $1 million for it, eventually putting Rs 65 lakh in Devaiah’s pocket. Around that time, his father, who had successfully abstained from alcohol for several years, died of cancer. “I grew up really fast after that. I became less naive about things,” he says. Eventually, Devaiah did his undergraduate degree in engineering at REC Surathkal in Mangalore, completed a master's in bio-medical engineering at Cornell in the US, got admission for a PhD program at Harvard but decided not to pursue it, and while working at waste-to-products firm Terracycle, stumbled upon an old friend and entrepreneur, Abhinav Asthana, whose technology inspired the two twenty-somethings to dream up TeliportMe.
In some ways, the company has a lot of its work already done for it. “Today, you have billions and billions of geo-tagged images already on the net... so you can easily harness the power of photo versus a tweet written about the place,” says Devaiah. His team ‘scraped’ billions of them to generate 360-views of locations, and incorporated them into the company’s database of user-generated shots. Today, every time someone takes a picture, new phones ensure they are automatically geo-tagged. “We didn’t wake up one day to start a panorama app. We’re trying to build a 360-degree database, the Wikipedia of images,” says Devaiah.
The big break
Bootstrapping left the team precariously short of money. So, Devaiah jetted off to the US to try and scout for opportunities. In another bizarre turn, Google approached them with a buyout offer that was in the $15-20 million range, according to well-known technology website techcrunch.com (TeliportMe is unwilling to share details). But Devaiah, having bigger ambitions for the company, turned it down.
At the end of his tether, Devaiah luckily stumbled upon 500 Startups, perhaps the most famous seed start-up business accelerator in the US, founded by ‘super angel investor’ Dave McClure. The accelerator’s four-month programme mentors a handful of global start-ups and gives them a vast network to mine. TeliportMe finished its stint and made the mandatory presentation of its business plan. Four days later, it reportedly got a few million bucks (Devaiah will not disclose how much) from the likes of Idealab’s Bill Gross and McClure himself, in exchange for what Devaiah says is a modest equity stake.
So, when can TeliportMe look forward to becoming the supremely successful Instagram? Hard to say. Instagram grew at an astonishing pace right from the start to around 30 million users before the Facebook acquisition. Pinterest, the enormously popular social photo-sharing website, had only 10,000 viewers in its first 10 months but grew to 11 million unique users in the next year. In March this year, it became the third largest social network in the US, outstripping Linkedin. Its users are, overwhelmingly, women and the company is valued around $1.5 billion. Most, of course, don’t reach such dizzying heights.
For TeliportMe to even have a shot at becoming the ‘next big thing,’ it has to work hard at making an app for not just the Android platform, but for the iPhone operating system as well, which is where a lot of the US-based dollar-spending customers are. Plus, the iPhone is a single device to design software for, compared to the multitude of phones with differing processors and gyroscopes in the Android world. Satisfying all customers while maintaining quality will not be easy. Also, Google has just introduced its own panorama app, Photosphere, but only for its recently launched Nexus phone. No prizes for guessing what might happen next.
That is why mentor Manian is cautious about talking up his protégé’s firm. “He’s got wet clay, he’s got to mould it. He doesn’t have a lot of time,” he says. He also warns against comparing TeliportMe to the likes of Instagram. “You really can’t,” he says. “There’s only one Steve Jobs, one Instagram. What TeliportMe is trying to do is going to be addressed by somebody. They just need to be at the right place, at the right time.”