Ankit Mittal, Co-Founder @ Sheru, interview on building the backend for new energy networks.

Ankit Mittal, a big believer in minimalism, is focused on solving energy storage for the world – Sheru – AWS of energy storage.

Ankit is someone who knows his subject, talks facts and has a very balanced personality.

Let us read through his story… 

YC – Welcome to Yellow Chapter.

The idea is to know you as a person and talk about you. We will also be talking about the startup later. Can we start from the beginning, where you were born, about your parents and the expectation from you while growing up?

Ankit – Got it, you will take me down the memory lane. This has not happened in a while. 

I was born and brought up in Delhi. I am from a typical “Baniya Family”. Growing up in a baniya family had a huge impact. I was exposed to commercials and economics very early. I became a cynic to some extent and understood everything runs through economics. If someone was not presenting economics during any transaction, there must be some internal motive.

My father is a CA, and my mother is a homemaker. My extended family stays nearby. During our family meetups, there is a lot of discussion about businesses in general.

Our neighbourhood was an early industrial neighbourhood of Delhi. Around 30 years back, people used to have their small-scale industries on the ground floor and stay on the floor above. So we were not allowed to mingle with the kids around us.

Both my parents are very loving; they were not strict. But we had some clear rules and were not allowed to tamper with those. As long as my grades were good, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted to do.

Being from a typical service background, the only security parents can give their children is a good education with good grades. They want to ensure that the system does not reject their children in the future. My parents were no different.

Whenever my younger brother and I had arguments, our parents always debug the conversation. Why are you thinking this and connecting it with this? They always encouraged thinking WHY, before concluding.

YC – Why engineering?

Ankit – As I mentioned earlier, we were not allowed to play with kids around. I used to spend a lot of time in front of the computer. For me, technology was solace. 

The only outings that my parents approved were either my school kids or with other kids in inter-school competitions. So I started participating in every inter-school competition. Competitions were my getaway from steeping out.

When I was in grade eight, I still remember there was a coding competition. I asked my senior about it, and he just shrugged me away, saying it is not for my age. I took a challenge and learned C and C++. I started coding when I was in class eight. 

Very early on, I started building small utilities for my father. I was in ninth grade when my father had a stroke. For a brief period, I had to manage his office also. I built a small tool to simplify things in the office and even used it myself. I then realized the power of technology.

Due to my technology and coding knowledge, I started getting a lot of recognition in school. At my school, they thought I a child prodigy. I started getting a lot of options to explore technology. 

In grade ninth, I got a chance to attend a workshop in robotics with twelfth-grade students. My confidence grew many folds.

Pursuing CA was a very natural obvious option. The business side of things came very naturally to me. I had seen balance sheets and PNLs from very early on. But I wanted to pursue engineering. 

Being a typical baniya, I knew what my father wanted to listen to. I pitched in engineering with an idea to build a legit business out of it someday. My father agreed, and I took my PCM (Physics, Chemistry and Maths).

I joined Narayan Coaching. There I realized that preparing for engineering was a rat race. But I was always interested in studying science and the application of science. So the whole journey of two years was challenging but fun. 

While preparing for JEE, I got selected for Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana (KVPY) – Scholarshipsa government initiative. I built a robot using household materials, which got me through KVPY. But later, I learned that to benefit from the scholarship; I have to do a PhD. I did not want to study so much and wanted to get into action ASAP.

2011! I got through Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani – Bachelor of Engineering Electronics and Instrumentation.

YC – How was BITS? How were the four years of engineering?

Ankit – There again, I saw this rat race. Everyone was talking about MBA, MS, IAS, Actuarial etc. And the most disheartening was for the first two years, we were studying the same things we had learned in class eleventh and twelfth.

I started working on freelancing projects and making some money. I met Nakul (my current co-founder) and Shikhar (my other co-founder). Three of us shared the same thought of being fed up with the whole institutionalization of education. No one knows the next step, next milestone… next step, next miles, where it all ends.

Though all three of us are very different personalities, we bonded well. We did a couple of freelancing projects together. We gamed a lot; we used to play multiplayer games. I went into nirvana mode in my first year and gamed for the whole year.

We registered our company Sheru Pvt. Ltd in the second year itself. The idea was to have some financial clarity and keep experimenting. 

Being a robotics engineers, we were all over the place, whether designing, technology or business. In the third year, all three wanted to do our venture. We could see the best fit in our venture.

We did not want to get into e-commerce or the digital rat race. Sustainability as a theme excited us. It has the word ‘sustain’ in it. We knew our efforts would be compounded every three or six months.

Fourth-year was mainly about internships and freelancing projects around robotics.

@ College

Suggestions of all the IITians and BITsians :

1. Enjoy the movement – You have worked hard to get where you are, absorb all of it, and relax. Do not jump into getting to another milestone.

2. Try and spend some time understanding what excites you. Is it doing MBA or MS? Just ask yourself, to what end are these means? 

3. Explore – Read, talk to peers and seniors, listen, try things, and do projects. Even before picking an internship, try and understand what you like.

When most of us start our professional journey, Jobs = Pay the bills. Try and solve it. 

Try and pick something you can do for 10-12 hours for the rest of your life. Remember, you are already privileged if you are an IITian or a BITsian. Whichever company you want to get into, you will eventually make it. 

But once your professional journey begins, you might have to do things you do not enjoy + To move ahead in your career; you have to get better at your work. It is tough to get better at something you do not enjoy. 

4. Time is money – Going back, again and again, is not a good option. What worked best for me was putting my effort in one direction, which eventually compounded. Inclination for science = engineering = solving problems at the front line = building tools.

People usually talk about compounding when it comes to money, but time is the most crucial thing if you think of it. Time is a commodity; everyone has it. But it compounds much faster if you spend it wisely.

5. Doubt is the killing machine – Once you have narrowed down your area of interest and thought well about it. Now is the time to give 200%. Stay focused and keep moving. Do not doubt yourself. Doubt makes you think two steps back, and it’s a waste of time.

@ College

YC – Before talking about Sheru, can we discuss your professional roadmap?

Ankit – 2015! Three of us joined the GreyOrange | Robotics Solution for Automated Warehousea startup by Ex. BITians – Samay and AkashThe best thing was there was no CGP cutoff. They both hired us based on our knowledge and our work. That was a great confidence booster. We were founding employees of GreyOrange. 

Learning from GreyOrange: It was a very encircling experience.

1. We were a small team, building and living together. We learnt to build with the bare minimum resource. There was no state-of-the-art labs. 

2. Grit – We were building robots from some remote place in India for the world. We wanted to sell to international clients. And it happened.

3. End goal should be clear – I learned planning is a good thing personally. It’s ok to overthink. Overthinking has a beautiful something; it stops by itself. There comes the point where you are completely exhausted. 

4. One of the significant learning was understanding the flow of money. Money always flows from the customer to the seller. Many people will be involved in transactions—the vendors, suppliers and investors. But NEVER get clouded by the judgement of these guys. Listen to the customer; he is the one paying. 

It is the customer from whom the value starts, which gets absorbed in the value chain. And everyone gets their fair share. There might be a lot of voices but make your decisions based on facts.

YC – Why the energy space?

Ankit – We worked three shifts while in GreyOrange. Two shifts were for GreyOrnage, and one shift was for us.

We made a list of seventeen sectors which were around sustainability. Solar, cold chain and agriculture are some of them. So while working in GreyOrange some businesses approached GreyOrange, trying to explore electric vehicles. 

They were exploring electric vehicles purely from a commercial point of view. They realized an electric vehicle is cheaper to run by around 40% to 50% in a longer period. They even wanted their EVs to be driverless. They knew GreyOrange was doing automation robotics, so they came to us.

That got us thinking. There is some technology people want commercially, + it has had a positive impact. We got into researching the EV space through and through. During our research, we realized EVs also have some problems.

So basically, EVs are a bigger problem for the grid. Today our total electricity demand is from residential and commercial. But going forward, entire transport will become electric. So the questions that need to be answered are:

  1. Where will that electricity come from?
  2. How will that electricity impact the grid? 
  3. How will that demand go hand in hand with the renewable of the country?

So this green theme is increasing on both sides – consumption and production. On the production side, we are trying to increase renewable energy. On the consumption side, we are trying to increase electrification.

Here we start interacting with the people from the grid, power producers and the utilities. Talking to them, we realized there was a big problem. And also, it is a global concern. It is a very fundamental problem. 

Renewable is needed; it is even cheaper than coal now. Solar production is more affordable than coal now. So commercially, the industry cannot say we cannot make renewable anymore. People are making money by doing renewable energy. Now renewable is growing very fast.

Lately, renewable energy has been 25% of total energy production in India. But in the next eight years, it will be around 75%. So basically, 75% of the power coming into India will be renewable.

Renewable energy is a good thing, but storage is a BIG issue. And now, with EVs coming in, we thought of making EVs bi-directional, which means taking power from the grid when required. But when they are ideal and parked, they can also give power back to the grid. 

This technology, coupled with a cloud platform, can convert the entire electric transport into a distributed pool of energy storage devices. Now your vehicle can do two things:

  1. Transport function
  2. Battery storage function – When the EVs are parked, it acts as a storage device by the grid.

There are multiple categories from which aggregation can be done, like batteries at home, telecom towers, data centres, residential parks, commercial parks etc. E-mobility is also one of them we have picked.

This problem has considerable equity in the net-zero emission of India. Around 15% of emissions In India are happening today because we do not have storage facilities. And this will be 20% in the next few years.

Today around 50% of emissions in the country are done by the power sector. 10% of the emissions in the country is done by transport. In transport 2% is electric two-three wheelers. 2% are four-wheelers, and 6% are highway.

If we convert all the two-three-four wheelers into EVs, we will only save 4% emissions. But if we make these 4% two-three-four wheelers bi-directional, we can remove around 20% emissions.

There is a very big compounding play out here—also very much commercial viable for enterprises. 

YC – How did Sheru happen? For my readers, can you please explain what Sheru is? 

Ankit – 2018! We got confident; this is a big problem. To be very honest, how will we generate revenue was still a challenge. But looking back at our small wins, we knew we would be able to figure them out.

 Sheru – We are building an energy storage cloud for the power industry. 

We are working with renewable developers and utilities in the country. We are building this storage cloud platform, aggregating batteries connecting to the grid. On our platform, renewable developers and utility users can store their excess energy in a network virtually, on-demand and paper.

There is immense power wastage in the power sector today because there is no provision to store power. Right now, the entire grid is like a single wire. Power as the whole sector was around a centralized power production unit. We are further transporting the power to our houses or industries. 

But now, power production is becoming distributed and renewable-based. But renewable has an intermittency issue – Power is not generated all the time. Sun does not shine all the time. Wind does not blow all the time.

When distributed power generation happens, and renewable production grows, there is a dire need for energy storage. If the storage capacity is not built, 40% to 50% of the power generated by renewable sources is wasted. It is a huge concern because it throttles down the scalability of renewable in our country.

Storage of renewable energy can be solved by building big warehouses with battery banks. But commercially, it does not make sense. It has a lot of pitfalls. 

India today has a requirement of around 20 gigawatts of energy storage. Today India has just 1 gigawatt of built out. It is a 95% turn tap market. Every more prominent player is trying to solve it. The solution that we are offering at Sheru is aggregation.

Aggregate batteries that are connected to the grid. And built a software layer on top of them, which is like an AWS and Dropbox for the power industry. Simply store the energy in the network and take it when required.

@ Team Sheru

YC – SaaS founders have three challenges – Product-market fit, marketing and sales. What is your take on each of them?

Ankit – PMF = Itirations, Itirations, Itirations, Itirations.

2019-2020, we were building the tech. So basically 2019, when we started, we built an app similar to Uber. On our app, we were aggregating EVs. The idea was. First, we will aggregate Evs and then build the charging infrastructure for them. Our revenue will come from charging infrastructure.

Within six months, we raised our first funding round from ADvantage, India’s mobility-focused fund. We were doing around 1.3 – 1.4 Cr annual revenue.

Then CoviD happened, and our revenue crashed big time. 2020 our revenue was Rs.5L. We relooked at the business model.

Pivot 1

During CoviD, when the first lockdown was removed, most drivers were operating without the app. No driver opened the app. It got us thinking, why? Why? Why? 

Earlier for our drivers, public transport hubs were the key demand centres. But now, when the public transport was shut down, and only intra-city commute was allowed, how can the drivers pick the demand themselves. How are they operating? Also, consumers were able to connect with the drivers themselves. So basically, there was no need for our app!

We realized the aggregation strategy was a fail! In India, 80% of the trips happen within 5kms – 6kms. So the driver and the end consumer will eventually meet on their own. There is no need for an app.

We started focusing on charging infrastructure and battery swapping infrastructure. We started building that out and scaling it. 

Next, we realized many unorganized players ( Kirana store owners and small business owners) were also doing the same, providing charging and battery swapping infrastructure.

Pivot 2

This got us thinking, why are we doing the Hardware? Let’s just focus on the Software. Let’s enable the dukkan wala, a small business, to do better business. Let’s sell shovels; why are we holding them ourselves.

Let’s sell the system to unorganized players; they will do the charging and the battery swapping. We can aggregate the battery capacity since they will be doing it on our system. Now we can sell aggregate power capacity to the power sector. 

A classic SaaS play – You sell Software to someone, and with the same Software, you can sell the service to someone else.

2021 we are on around 7Cr -8Cr annual revenue. 

Marketing & Sales – It is purely founder to founder for our sector. It is rational buying. Here a lot of effort goes into research and advocacy. 

Initially, we have to do consulting for 2-3 months, and then eventual sales happen. Enterprise sales cycles are pretty long.

YC – Can you please share some numbers? Competition?

Ankit – The market in which we are operating is a global market. India’s power market is around $20 billion; our segment is about $2 billion. If we get just 1% of this $2 billion, we can make a 100 million ARR company. We are very sure we can achieve this in the next 5-6 years. We are growing around 50% MoM.

Globally power market would be north of $100 billion. It is a fundamental requirement. By 2030 the market will self-expand. India’s power market will grow upto $50 million, and our segment will be around $10 billion.

India is the third-largest consumer in the world. It is proportional to the population we have. However, India’s per capita power consumption is five times less than US markets. Because our digitization is happening now, our telecom expansion is happening now; our economic growth is happening now. By 2050 this market will expand phenomenally in India.

We are the only company in India doing energy storage cloud proposition. We are leveraging the first-mover advantage. We are locking in the networks. We are building our moat around creating entry barriers.

Our biggest moat is the technologies we have built. Some of the technologies are patented. But for every SaaS business, the moat becomes the data and network. We are no different. The data we are collecting is north of 500GB per month.

The ideal customer for Sheru is – Amazon Power, Renew Power, Tata Power, DSCS, and Hero Future Energies.

Our customers – We have three utilities working with us at the movement. We have one power supply company; they provide power to data centres. We have one neo-distribution company; they are into last-mile optimization of energy.

We have great investors on board. One of them being the COO of ENGIE

Competiton – Emulate Energy – They are doing almost the same thing as we are doing. Companies in the nearby vicinity are Stem | Newway . Some startups – WeaveGrid | ElectricFish Energy, Inc.

YC – Ankit, very insightful conversations till now. Can you let me know what keeps you going in tough times?

Ankit – Hahaha…this is a tough one. I have a very pragmatic approach to things. I work on a simple idea – “I have to keep going“. The only way a failure can be converted into learning is to keep going. There is a silver lining to everything.

Every time I am stuck in a situation, I think I have that control within myself, which motivates me to keep working on it.

Working in an industry where almost everyone is grey hair + they are constantly trying to teach you. I know I have to push myself to make my path ahead. I talk in facts, know my numbers, and do my homework well.

I try to keep the balance. I neither get too overwhelmed nor too underwhelmed regarding an idea. Plato rightly said, “Every job is a job“.

YC – Quick five tips to fellow founders?

Ankit – Sure:

1. Data – Follow facts; it will lead to the correct answers.

2. Be true to yourself. Be very clear about what you want. 

3. Make things simple. You have to deal with a lot of complexity being a founder.

4. Don’t go for the face of things. Whatever you learn, whatever you read, try and absorb it first before faulting it.

5. CoviD has taught us a considerable thing, value personal relationships. 

The book I would like to recommend is ‘An Iron Will – Orison Swett Marden‘. I still remember an excerpt from the book:

People ask how you are so efficient? The author replies that most people do things three times. But I do it once. He further explains:

  •  People do things first in anticipation.
  •  Second when they are doing it.
  • The third is nostalgia. 

So much bandwidth and mind space is spent doing just that one thing. I simply do it at the time of doing it. I do not waste time anticipating it and thinking about it in nostalgia. 

Hacker News is one community which I like. The good part is that it is not moderated. It is about ideas and opinions people have.

YC – Ankit, I genuinely believe many people contribute to where we are in life. They are our family, friends, teachers, mentors etc. People you would like to thank in your journey so far?

Ankit – First and foremost, I would like to thank my co-founders at Sheru. Nakul and Shikhar have been my greatest mentors over the last decade, and have been companions on a very challenging but fulfilling journey. 

But as they say, it takes a village to raise a child. I am grateful to everyone I have crossed paths with, starting from my very loving and supportive family, and my mentors in my formal education years. Samay and Akash (Founders, Greyorange) and every investor that is backing Sheru.

@ Family

Ankit, it was a great conversation. Thank you for your time. Yellow Chapter wishes you all the very best in your future journey.

Feel free to contribute