The crazy adventures of a tech founder

Meet the founder of Exaltare, Ashutosh Arage. Soft-spoken, yet worldly-wise, Ashutosh deftly navigates between giving sagely advice to up-coming entrepreneurs, to excitedly talking about his journey into software development.

The journey of being an entrepreneur can be a crazy one, there's several highs, there’s lows… There's the convincing of families that you are on the right path, and so much more. And, my guest today has seen it all, dealt with it all. Meet the founder of Exaltare, Ashutosh Arage. Soft-spoken, yet worldly-wise, Ashutosh deftly navigates between giving sagely advice to up-coming entrepreneurs, to excitedly talking about his journey into software development. He also tells me about starting off in the world of Android development with apps to make money on the side, to now expanding his business across the world. Here's a small peek into the journey of Ashutosh.

Nishtha: Hi Ashutosh, thanks for joining me today. It is really good to finally have you here. We’ve been trying to get you on the show for a very long time. How have you been?

Ashutosh: Hi Nishtha , thanks for having me on the show, sorry I was not able to make time for the show. We can finally catch up now.

Nishtha: What’s been keeping you this busy and this occupied recently?

Ashutosh: So, there are a lot of things happening. As we are all aware, the market is catching up after the COVID web. So, there’s a lot of work coming up specifically in the Indian software industry. And I guess the Indian software industry is something which is not much impacted by COVID. We are seeing some overall increase in the demand in the market for the developers, and the technological companies, so that’s why we have been busy in talking to clients and getting some new projects for business.

Nishtha: While we were researching on an article we recently did, we found something that said, no matter how good or bad the market is there is always always going to be a demand for good developers.

It is a very early segue over here but I still wanted to ask you, how do you envision the market for software developers despite the rest of the market being as volatile as it is. How do you envision the market for software developers in the next few years maybe?

Ashutosh: I guess, if you see the overall transition in the last ten to fifteen years, everything is going digital nowadays. If you see, our parents are also now using electronic gadgets, our shopkeepers are also now using payment solutions, fin-tech payment solutions. So, the future is very bright for the developers but they have to keep a few things in mind, like they need to keep their fundamentals strong. If there is anything they want to achieve in software development specifically, their fundamentals should be strong, so that they can get a job in any market situation and they can perform well in companies.

Nishtha: Awesome! So from advice to software developers to actually going into your story of becoming a founder. Let’s roll back the years a little bit. You have a lot of hands-on experience of working in big companies including Infosys. What was that turning point where you decided to make the switch and get into being a founder and entrepreneurship? Where did that spirit come from?

Ashutosh: Business was something that I wanted to do from my college days itself. I’m a mechanical engineer by education, but when I got into Infosys, I got interested in coding. I first learned Android application and development then. That was the turning point. I specifically chose software development because it has a very low cost-of-entry in the market. As in the investment part. But the returns are lucrative in that sense.

There is a struggle, of course, but an investment-to-income ratio is pretty high in this market. And when I got into coding, I realized that this is something I can do for the rest of my life. So that was the turning point when I decided to go from mechanical engineering to software. And I started building a few small apps and putting it on the Play Store. Then I came to know that this is how app economy works and I can start my own development firm after that. I continued my job for a few years to save some money and start with my friends. That’s how it all started.

Nishtha: A lot of founders, especially in the space that you operate in, when they decide to become founders, they try to hold down a job simultaneously for the next few years. Is that a trend? Is that very commonplace? Why does this happen?

Ashutosh: There are a few points in that. If you see my story, the first thing was parental pressure. They said you have to at least do a job and save some money and then start the business. So I did it, because I wanted some initial capital to start the business. That was the first point. The other point is that we didn’t really know how a software firm works.

When we were in college, we’d see it as a big building of glass, and we used to see people coming out of offices and going in but no one really knows what goes inside. I wanted to have the look and feel of the corporate environment, and how it works. In my family there’s no one from a business background. That’s why I wanted to learn the software business first and then go to the actual market with my own business. That’s why I did it parallelly.

Nishtha: Right! And like you mentioned your family wanted you to ensure that you had the capital first. Did you face any other hesitancy from their end because like you said there weren’t a lot of people in your family who did business. Was there any hesitancy especially when you are starting your own thing?

Ashutosh: Yes, initially there was some hesitancy. Questions like, “Why are you leaving your job, you have a good salary?” and, “You’ll get a good hike in the next six months.” happened. But once I started they have been very supportive and I am lucky to have that support from my family. Because in business, you have to deal with many things every day, and, something that you don’t want to do is convince your family…going back home and convince your family that I want to do this.

Nishtha: Right … the support system is extremely vital for any founder, right?

Ashutosh: Yes!

Nishtha: Like you said that as a founder, outside the house, while you are working you have to face so many challenges. What’s been your toughest challenge so far in your entrepreneurial journey? It’s been almost a decade of your entrepreneurial journey. What’s been the toughest challenge you have faced and the lesson you have learnt from there?

Ashutosh:  Specifically, in the last two years, we have faced the toughest challenges in order to retain the employees and to train the new employees. That was the toughest challenge because you see, in any software firm or any services or businesses, employees are the assets of the company. And in the current volatile market, it’s very difficult to retain employees within your organization.

But to overcome that, we have a very friendly environment. We have ensured that the future of these employees is secured and they are getting in terms of monetary, in terms of financial and technical, they’ll grow as compared to the market.

It’s not like you are in a small scale company and you’ll not grow financially or you’ll not grow technically. That’s what any employee wants in their lives. We have made sure that we give them an opportunity to grow financially and technically as well.

Another challenge I faced mostly, and most entrepreneurs also face, was cash flow. In any business cash flow is king and we need to maintain the cash flow everytime. We make sure that those are in time.

Nishtha: Did you envision yourself donning so many hats when you first founded a company? You mentioned, the last two years you had to look after employee satisfaction and retention a lot more than you previously did. That is a little bit of HR and a little bit of going outside canvassing for investments. How difficult is it? First of all, did you ever imagine when you got into being a founder, you’d have to do all of this and more? And, how do you manage your time and your efforts in these various departments that a founder needs to look at all the time?

Ashutosh: I’ll break down the questions in part. Did I ever imagine I’d wear these hats? Yes! Of course, when I started the journey I understood that I needed to know everything.

And yes, I don’t think I’m a good coder. If you ask, “Are you a good coder?” I’m not. But if you ask me, “Can you speak in different languages?” then yes. I can talk to the CA in a language they understand, I talk to developers in the language they understand. That is something I can do better.

And I think that’s why I am able to handle multiple teams at any given time. That is something that is an important skill in any entrepreneur. If you see any businessman, they are good at conversation and communication with different stakeholders because that’s their main job.

Nishtha: How important is it for a founder to have businessman-like qualities, plus working knowledge of the product or the service they are working on. How important is the combination of both of them?

Ashutosh: As a founder, specifically as a tech-founder, you need to know the in-depth or any technology that your team is working on. That’s a primary thing that you need to work on.

In the case of my business, I research first for one week or two weeks. And only then do I go to the team and ask them to do things. This is the way I maintain things within my organization. Because at the end of the day, technology is going to make the difference. How good your company is with the technology or product, is going to keep your customers, is going to bring in the business. It is very important for any tech cofounder to have in-depth knowledge of their product or technology.

Apart from that, they also need to have good communication skills or convincing skills. Because you'll need funding, you'll need to convince the client to send the check, you need to convince the employee to stay with you for the next five years. You have to wear those hats multiple times, you have to talk and you have to connect with your employees or the person next to you, so that they can understand your vision, and they will align with your vision and work with you.

Nishtha: Talking about vision, your company Exaltare is going to be ten in a couple of years, right? It's been almost a whole decade of you running your start-up and growing it. What's been the most satisfying part of growing Exaltare?

Ashutosh:  It is actually when I see that we have these many people working for us and we are able to generate employment with our organization. And that we are helping in some way or the other in overall nation-building. You can say it is pretty philanthropic. That is what satisfies me the most, that we are able to handle these many people in our organization.

Nishtha: And what's your vision for the next ten years for your company? Where do you see yourself, see your employees and see your team?

Ashutosh:  We have a long-term plan and we are working towards that. The main part of that plan is that we want to grow globally. Currently, we are starting with our UK and German expansion. We want to grow to at least 4 or 5 countries in this decade and at least we are focusing on the next industry 5.0 or 4.0, the IOT stuff and the new challenges coming in the web 3 and blockchain part.

Nishtha: How do you deal with challenges, difficult times that obviously come for any founder while they’re running their own business? What is your process of dealing with difficult times and challenging situations? Do you have a method of approaching it, solving it or dealing with it?

Ashutosh: There is no specific method, actually. I am pretty much lucky in that area that I have good business partners with whom we discuss the problem. We fight about the problems, over how we can solve it. Sometimes, I agree with them, sometimes they agree with me and we work on that part.

But something that we agree on is our vision and to keep our motivation levels high and keep going towards those visions. We only focus on the steps that we need to take in the next ten days or next month or so. We keep it short. For any problem we find the solution and we break down the solution into tasks and we just keep focused on the tasks. That's what we do most of the time.

Nishtha: Talking about tasks, I really wanted to ask you, you've been using Sketchnote for a while now, right? How has being on the platform and delegation of tasks, etc. been helping you. How have you found it so far and how's it going?

Ashutosh: I used Sketchnote with my personal project first before deploying it within the organization. I find it pretty easy to use and helpful for project management.

It covers most of the features that any mid-scale or small-scale startup requires for their operations. The other thing that I liked is that it covers a lot of verticals within a startup. Different departments can use this, like project management. If I say project management, I can use the dashboard. I am just seeing the learning management is live. I can use learning management, the project team can use learning management for their own purposes. Apart from that, sometimes our marketing team uses Sketchnote tips and tricks. There are few articles where you can do Marketing 101, how you can work the legal things, etc.

Nishtha: The lessons, yes!

Ashutosh: We refer to those lessons as well. Another point is that I am looking forward to having the invoicing modules, so that we can bring in our finances there.

If I talk about Sketchnote on a very high level, it solves most of the problems that a small-scale organization or a startup has. As a start-up owner I don't want to spend a lot of time on project management. I don't want to spend more time on learning management or invoicing.

Or I don't want to hire a specialist accountant within my team to manage my account. So that invoicing feature is going to allow me to do that on my own within a shorter time frame. These are pretty good points about the Sketchnote.

Nishtha: Fingers crossed we can bring the invoicing features to you quickly!

I want to ask you about something a little away from work. We found that you have your own blog where you write down your thoughts about running startups and focusing on very important things like approach to your MVP, design thinking. First of all, as a founder, how do you find the time to do this—to run a blog?

Ashutosh:  It's very difficult to find the time but I get time on Saturdays or weekends when I write those articles. I think I write those articles specifically to focus towards start-up founders or small scale companies, Because the mistakes that we have made… I want to give my knowledge out and avoid others making those mistakes.

The story behind the MVP article: I worked with a few start-up companies. They were my clients and what I saw in them is that they wanted to have too many features in the first launch itself. That’s something that needs to be avoided. Focus on your core product and your core functionalities, so that the development team can also focus on quality coding and quality delivery. Similarly, your customer/client can have the look and feel of the core features first rather than having all the extra nice-to-have features.

Through these articles, I try to write what I can, and give my knowledge to other people.

Nishtha: There is also a post about a very comprehensive step-by-step guide on building and making money from an application. And you mentioned that one of the first things you did when you learnt coding was making and uploading Android apps to the Play Store, right? How do you break down a process like this. Has anybody been able to use it so far, your steps?

Ashutosh:  One of my colleagues has been using that and he's been pretty successful with the mobile app. So he basically has a side income through the mobile app. This article was written in the initial days, when I was learning my mobile app development. This was the first article, I guess.

When I wrote it, there was a lot of money coming into mobile applications. There was very little competition in the market and the money generated through mobile ads was pretty huge. That's why I thought this could be a good article to write about for someone who is looking forward to having a career as an app developer. They can use it. I had written that with my few initial apps I did make some money out of those.

Nishtha: Sounds amazing! But since you made apps back then, many years ago, when Android was so new in the market, how have you seen app development change over the years? It's such a dynamic thing. Everyday there’s something new on various OS and different platforms. They'll try to make it easier for users, they are more friendly for users and a little difficult for app-developers. How have you seen the landscape shift in these many years of being an app developer?

Ashutosh: Nowadays, the life of a developer has been made easy by Google and Apple. There are many platforms like React Native or Flutter where you can code at once and build for Android and iOS.

But in the initial days, developers had a lot of freedom to develop the way they want, upload any kind of app. Nowadays it has been restricted. But, if you see the other side, it has been good for user privacy and user data. Android still has a long way to go in that area in terms of user privacy. Apple has done all the things to secure data. And from a developer's point of view, it's been good. You have to keep updated with every new version, every type of update or release that they do. So you have to stay updated with everything.

Nishtha: Do you have any stories about your most challenging or your most fun moment developing one of these apps? Because it has been so many years where it started from the basic you know apps where you could pretend like you are drinking beer from a phone to such complex apps now.  Tell us something about your journey, tell us something that stood out to you.

Ashutosh: You can say this is an initial story. I had just integrated and developed one application and just uploaded it to the Play Store. To see that your application is in the Play Store and that I can show it to my friends and say, “Look, this is my application!” was a proud moment for me. The fact that my first application was in.

But the main fun part was when the revenue started to come in. So initially, it was a hobby project, but as the revenue started to come in, it was great to see the dollars coming in every day. I read the book Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris. There's one more book on mobile app development, I can’t remember the name right now. But it was about a passive income generating source that they had defined. It was fun to generate passive income while doing a job.

Nishtha: It sounds like a great thing when your hobby becomes your passion and your passion becomes something that you generate income with and generate employment with. When you look at your journey so far, what do you think about coming this far and turning something that was a hobby into a side income, into something big?

Ashutosh: The journey has been great so far, from starting from a small single developer and starting with a group of friends and now forming a company. The journey has been good so far but we have to make it great in the future. Mostly I have been looking into the future rather than in the past. I am pretty satisfied till now.

Nishtha: If you have three tips to give, for example, to a founder or somebody who intends to become a founder in the near future, listening to you right now, what would be your top three tips of getting into entrepreneurship and staying in the journey constantly?

Ashutosh: The number one tip I would like to give is keep networking. In entrepreneurship, the networking part is the most important part, because as an employee you have many friends around you. But when you jump into business, you don't have many people to talk to or you don't have many people around you, who have the same vision or the same inclination as you. It's really important to have a network that can motivate you or guide you saying, “Do these things,” or, “Don't do these things.” It will be helpful for any entrepreneur to have a big brother or a buddies’ network where they can discuss the business ideas or business problems.

The second tip will be, focus on the daily or weekly things. Just don't only focus on the long term part right now. You have to shorten or slice your vision into small parts, because if I say I have to do this in the next ten years, it will be overwhelming for us to envision that part. If we break weekly or monthly achievements or goals into chunks, it becomes more achievable and we can celebrate small wins along the way. Entrepreneurship is sometimes depressing. Actually most times. So if we break it down to small steps, we can enjoy the journey.

My third tip will be that you have to stick to your path. There will be a lot of critics of your vision. But you have to just stick with your vision and just go ahead with it. These will be my three tips for any entrepreneur.

Nishtha: That sounds like sage advice from somebody who has experienced everything firsthand. So clearly it is going to be valuable to anyone who has been listening and wanting to get into entrepreneurship. Last question, Ashutosh, personally what are your goals for the next few months. What is in your pipeline and what are you planning to do? Anything that you can talk about?

Ashutosh: We are working on a product that I can't disclose right now. But definitely, we are looking for funding and that's our main goal—to get the funding for the product. Also in terms of services business, we are expanding our business across India to another location. So let’s see! We can say we are launching our new product and expanding our business across India, and that's our main target right now.

Nishtha: Sounds like a very exciting six months coming up for you Ashutosh! We wish you all the very best, on behalf of all the listeners and on behalf of Sketchnote! We seriously hope that we can do a follow-up episode to see how well these are panned out in the very near future, so good luck!

Ashutosh: Thanks, Nishtha for that. I'm happy that you invited me to this podcast and I'll be happy to come again and share another story about the new product.

Nishtha: It's always our pleasure, thanks so much Ashutosh!

Thanks for listening to the Sketchnote Startup Podcast. Join us again next time for another fascinating tale from the world of startups and corporates. Also stay tuned for more interviews, bite-sized productivity hacks and much, much more. If you don't already, subscribe to our podcast, available now on all leading podcast platforms. Oh, and don't forget to share this episode if you liked it, tag us on Twitter, we are @SketchnoteCo. Until next time, I'm Nishtha and this has been the Sketchnote Startup Podcast!

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