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How an ex-NLS-Linklaters lawyer got $5m from Sequoia: Ankur Singla on building tech dot-com Akosha

Singla: On things that go right
Singla: On things that go right

One of the most important things when creating a technology company is “to think about what could go right”, says Ankur Singla, in stark contrast to the typical lawyers’ mindset.

Singla is founder of consumer feedback portal Akosha, which in June raised Rs 30 crore ($5m) of funds from Sequoia Capital. It was Sequoia’s second round of funding in the five-year-old start-up, after a seed round of Rs 1 crore in 2011, as reported by the Economic Times.

2007 NLSIU Bangalore graduate Singla started his career having accepted a Linklaters training contract from campus, but left the job to found Akosha three months before the contract ended. He commented: “The second [most important] thing I realised [while starting up Akosha] was the ability to take risks, to not think of what could possibly go wrong and think of what could go right. During the Linklaters training contract I [was conditioned] to think about what could go wrong.”

The first thing, of course, which he realised, was most important was that in order to create a technology company one needed to be fluent in technology. “Otherwise it is very difficult to build a large successful internet company,” he said.

The 3 habits of highly successful internet companies

Singla said he was always “fairly comfortable” with technology, leading NLS’ law and technology committee during law school and keeping technology-related hobbies. But until the year he started up Akosha he did not know how to code.

“For any technology person to join me and work with me, I needed to [update] my technological [know-how]. I learnt about the UI [user interface] and the UX [user experience] designs once I came back [to India]. I realised that they were necessary for me to actually build an internet company.”

Other than “learning about technology” and “unlearning being a lawyer and being more business-like”, he said, the final straw was building his own network – the third most important thing.

“Because I went to law school all my friends were lawyers. It was very difficult for me to explain to them what I was doing. I made a conscious effort to make friends who were themselves entrepreneurs and founders of start-ups.”

Out of the 120 people employed at Akosha today, about four are lawyers – who are legal researchers on consumer laws, doing non-contentious work. “There was never any kind of interaction with the legal community. For us it was always about technology and software and what we can do to solve the problems of customers using those,” said Singla who had started the portal up as an online database of Wills.

By contrast, around 20 staff members are pure techies and coders.

And while Singla says that he still understands legal documentation, he’s obviously not up-to-date anymore on the latest laws. Pankaj Jain, a 2006 Nalsar Hyderabad graduate, the founder of Impact Law Ventures and a “great guy”, according to Singla, therefore handles most of Akosha’s commercial and corporate work.

Mentors, friends and good PR

Singla had nurtured an entrepreneurial dream from a young age, when articles in India Today motivated him to join NLSIU and “hide behind the smart crowd” of law school. But the expenses of nurturing the same dream in real life, without the Linklaters job in hand, made his pockets run almost dry within the first eight months of starting up.

“I think fairly early, within the first six to eight months [of starting up] I realised I was fairly clueless about what I was doing. To carry on and do something meaningful would be really difficult. I also had little cash left with me. I needed mentors who had done this before.”

Around this time Singla met the co-founders of business accelerator program Morpheus, Sameer Gugliani and Nandini Hirianniah. “They were the people who had done a start-up before. They really guided me on how to go, and [back] then it was something fairly counter-intuitive. The philosophy became that how can [we] get the next customer, solve his pain point and get him to pay for it. We did it one at a time and stuff like that and that is how it grew. [It would have been difficult] without Morpheus’ help.”

Supportive friends from NLS who “paid [his] bills, helped [him] out, shared [his] stuff on Facebook and Twitter” and “good PR in the beginning” helped his entrepreneurial dream finally take off properly and begin growing rapidly.

“People got to know that what we were doing was fairly different from everybody else and I think that reduced the [customer] scepticism. There is this early adopter crowd in India who ant to try new stuff, who hang out online, who work in call centres. They were our typical early users, and they spread the word.”

Initially a platform for consumers to share their grievances and feedback for the resolution of their customer-service problems with various companies, Akosha has received 790,000 customer service issues across various sectors by June 2014, according to the ET.

The latest round of funding would be used to expand its OneDirect Suite of enterprise solutions including customer service benchmarking, online feedback CRM, and reputation management solutions, and eventually to open a consumer insight research centre.

The OneDirect service is intended to compete directly with tech companies such as Oracle or SAP in offering enterprise solutions, explained Singla. As such, the goals ahead are long term.

“Building a company takes 10 to 15 years and we’re just getting started,” he says, and adds: “We believe that over the next seven to eight years, a lot more people will be using the Akosha platform, both on the client and company side.”

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