Bala Paneerselvam is the co-founder of Zorp, a platform that enables companies to quickly build robust and scalable tools tailored to their specific operations.
With years of experience in the tech industry, including roles at companies like Nokia, Cisco, and PaySense, Bala has a wealth of knowledge and expertise to bring to the table.
In this interview, we will hear more about Bala’s vision for Zorp and how it empowers businesses to streamline their operations and improve efficiency. We will also delve into Bala’s journey as a successful entrepreneur and his insights into the world of startups.
Get ready to learn from one of the leading minds in the tech industry and discover how Zorp is revolutionising the way businesses operate.
YC- Bala, welcome to the Yellow Chapter. It’s great to have you here. Our goal today is to understand better who you are as a person, your life experiences and choices, and learn more about Zorp. Please tell us a bit about your upbringing, family, and education.
Bala- I was born in Kallipalayam, a village in Tamil Nadu. My family relocated to a nearby town when I was six years old.
I come from a lower-middle-class family. My father is a businessman. Unfortunately, not a very successful one. He tried his hand at multiple businesses. However, my father ensured that we had enough to cover our expenses.
My mother works as a tailor, even now. She completed her education until the 12th grade, while my father could not complete his schooling. In my family, education was always considered to be of the utmost importance, given our economic circumstances.
My mother encouraged me to focus on my studies and pursue a stable job rather than starting a business, as we already had a family history in the business. She very categorically said, “Don’t do business ever”.She believed that the most secure path to success was to study hard, get a job, and settle down.😀
I have an older sister, Pratheeba; she is like another parent to me. She lives in Texas and works for Dell USA. Due to our family’s economic circumstances, only one of us could attend an English-medium school, and Pratheeba sacrificed so that I could have that opportunity.
I was involved in gymnastics 🤸🤸 and even competed at the state level, winning a few medals🥇🥇. However, I stopped pursuing it in 8th grade because I was worried about losing focus on my studies. I have always been among the top five students in the school.
I am grateful to have a close and supportive family. All four of us have been there for each other through thick and thin. 👪👪
YC- What motivated you to pursue a degree in engineering?
Bala- To be honest, Pratheebha, my older sister, played a big role in my decision to study engineering. In many families, the older sibling sets the path for the younger ones, which was the case for me as well.
There is an exciting backstory – my sister, two years older than me but four years ahead academically, enrolled in a Bachelor of Engineering (BE) program at Periyar University. When she went for engineering counselling, she was asked if she preferred to study electrical or electronics and communication engineering.
She had never heard of these divisions before and was still deciding which to choose. Her decision to pursue engineering ended up setting the bar for me.
Back then, I had also attempted the medical entrance exam. I missed the cut by 0.6%. I had the option of studying BDS. I thought engineering would be better as I could start earning faster. So I opted for a major in engineering.
YC- Can you tell us something about your engineering days?
2004-2008: Electronics and Communication Engineering @Government College of Technology, Coimbatore 🎓🎓🎓
In hindsight, my college years were a time of exposure to the world beyond my home and community. I travelled alone. I participated in co-curricular activities. I grew a lot personally and gained more confidence. I was quite reserved during the first couple of years, but by the final year, I had changed in a good way! 😃😃
1. Understanding the shades of grey: Coming from a small town, it’s natural to see things in black and white. For example – you have filters for certain types of people.
But my experience at engineering college made me realise there are good and bad things about everything. You can double-click and see the second-level details rather than judging them superficially.
2. Embrace hostel life. Living in a hostel had a significant impact on my life. Every choice I made at this point – attending lectures, participating in sports, managing finances, or choosing friends – was an independent decision. I knew that if I made a wrong choice, I could not blame anyone else for it.
Fortunately, I don’t regret any of my choices. My confidence increased 100x 💪💪.
Suggestions for engineering students 🎓🎓🎓
- Don’t follow the crowd; explore and try to find your passion and niche. Remember, you may or may not find your passion but do not stop exploring.
- Step out of your comfort zone, and don’t be afraid to try new things.
- Take advantage of opportunities and do internships to gain hands-on experience.
- Seek mentors and advisors who can help guide your career path.
YC- Could you share your professional journey and the lessons you have learned along the way?
Bala- 2008-2011: Research and Development Engineer @Nokia Siemens Networks 📱📱
My first job was via campus placement. Involved in Quality assurance of products in 3G mobile technology industry. The main focus being on Radio Network Controller.
1. Seek a mentor in your career as soon as possible. I was fortunate to have Swaminathan Arunachalam to guide me.
2. When I first joined Nokia, I was unsure of my role and responsibilities. I was unaware of the various businesses that Nokia was involved in. Looking back, I regretfully realise how little I knew.
I recommend doing thorough research on a company before joining. Read about the company’s history, competition, and industry. This knowledge will likely be helpful in some way or another.
3. Look for smaller teams – Initially, in Nokia, I was working with a small core team. It was like a small startup within Nokia. There were countless opportunities for learning and growth. But later, we moved to a much bigger team.
I managed for a year but then decided to move on.
2011-14: Quality Assurance Engineer @Cisco Systems 🖥️🖥️
Cisco was excellent, but the large size of the organisation and the monotonous work culture ultimately didn’t work for me.
I saw MBA as the only way out.
I received acceptance letters from some good foreign universities. But the tuition fee was steep. I applied to the Indian School of Business and was accepted.
2014-15: MBA @Indian School of Business 💼💼
MBA is not for everyone but for me, ISB was transformative. Some of my key takeaways were:
1. Identify your strengths 💪💪: One need not excel in every domain. There are many options available; the key is to choose what you enjoy and put all your time and effort into it. The rest will fall into place.
ISB gave me exposure to the startup world. It immediately clicked, and I decided to be around the startup ecosystem for the rest of my life. My time at ISB helped me understand how to navigate the world. I continue to play to my strengths today, delegating tasks outside my areas of expertise.
2. Don’t let others intimidate you: Everyone has unique qualities and abilities. It may be intimidating to be around others who excel in different areas. I still remember being in the same cohort as PhD students, army officers, journalists, and scientists.
You will be successful if you have identified your path and are committed to following it.
3.Networking – I was unaware of the power of networking. At ISB, I spent a lot of time in the startup club. I was amazed to see how connecting is the key to all successful businesses.
I made good connections and friends like Praveen Kumar, now Director of Product Management @Swiggy.
2015- Product Manager @Stayzilla: Indian Homestay Network 🏩🏨
I joined Stayzilla over BookMyShow🎦.
Stayzilla had some intelligent people, but there was a leadership change for good in the last ten months of my time. I was amazed to see how the problem-solving approach changed. The fresh way of looking at things and the new perspective were exciting for everyone.
Pankaj Gupta, currently the VP of Engineering @Coinbase and Abhimanyu Singh (now Director, Product Management @Coinbase) were superb!
Despite having a solid team, the startup ultimately couldn’t be saved due to the extensive damage done. In hindsight, it may have been beneficial to focus more on organic growth rather than spending on inorganic marketing channels.
There is more than one way to build a company. The founders of Stayzilla chose a certain way. Unfortunately, Stayzilla had to Shut Down 🔒🔒
A day at Stayzilla.
2017-2018: Senior Product Manager @PaySense- Personal Loan App 💰💰
After Stayzilla,, I wanted to continue in an early-stage startup.
Abhimanyu, my mentor @Stayzilla, introduced me to Prashanth Ranganathan, the CEO of PaySense. I was impressed by the team, and the whole vibe was cosy. I worked with PaySense for a year and a half. Although I enjoyed working with the team, I struggled to connect with the problem statement.
I found it challenging to cope when I closely watched the money-lending business with all the extra charges, penalties, and collection processes.
I decided to quit!
- Taking action when you realise that a job is not fulfilling or aligned with your values is essential. Ignoring this feeling can lead to dissatisfaction and a lack of motivation in the long run.
In hindsight, I wish I had decided to leave my job at PaySense sooner. However, on the bright side, it was at PaySense that I met my wife, Pratibha Shetty, so the experience was not entirely negative.
- It is essential to confront and address issues directly instead of avoiding them. As a non-confrontational person, I used to try to prevent conflicts and problems. However, over time, I have learned the value of facing challenges head-on and have developed my skills in this area.
- As mentioned earlier, finding great mentors is crucial for personal and professional growth. I was fortunate enough to meet Sayali Karanjkar, the former CBO of PaySense, who became one of our angel investors. She taught me how to build and maintain a solid and happy team, which has been invaluable in my career.
2018- 2020 @Bounce Scooter Share 🛵🛵
Bombay lacked the startup atmosphere I had experienced in Bangalore. I wanted to return there. That’s when Anita, an HR Manager at Stayzilla, recommended WickedRide Adventure, the parent company of Bounce Scooter Share.
Initially, I was hesitant about the idea of a bike rental business. However, further investigation revealed that managing a dockless scooter rental service involves a complex mathematical problem. You have to place scooters throughout the city such that it is easily accessible to customers for their transportation needs.
I was excited and decided to join! I joined as Group Product Manager and was eventually promoted to Director of Product Management.
1. Don’t dismiss opportunities without considering them carefully. The idea for my startup came to me while working at Bounce.
2. I learned that if a problem is significant, even people with differences of opinion would come together and work effectively to find a solution.
3. I have gained a lot of hands-on experience through the opportunity to lead an out-of-service issue. Under my leadership, we helped the Operations team reduce the out-of-service rate from 70% to 15% within six months while also decreasing the cost per task from Rs.85 to Rs.37.
This experience allowed me to develop skills in planning, recruiting, executing, and delivering projects. I met my current co-founders, Vivek and Subramanya while working on this project.
Leaving Bounce and Ideation Stage 💡💡💡
The outbreak of COVID-19 forced Bounce to scale back its operations significantly. I left Bounce in March 2021 to pursue the dream of building my startup.
Some of the early ideas I explored were:
- Blue Apron: Praveen, Arvind, and I attempted to launch an Indian version of the meal kit company Blue Apron to address the cooking problem. My personal experience drove the idea. The idea gained little traction despite conducting a trial run in several shops.
- E-commerce platform: The second idea we pursued was to create an e-commerce platform where users could open online stores and sell their products. We attempted to do something similar to Dukaan, but the project was unsuccessful. The successful launch of WhatsApp Business has since addressed it.
- Office Computers on Cloud: I was very passionate about a cloud-based office computer. Purchasing and installing software on laptops, obtaining licences, and managing logistics can be tedious and time-consuming.
This inspired me to consider having a PC on the cloud, where you could access all the necessary tools for work from any location by logging in to the cloud. This could significantly enhance flexibility and efficiency in the workplace. While it may take some time, this concept has the potential to revolutionise the way we work.
YC- What led to the creation of Zorp?
Bala- After departing from Bounce, I met with Vivek and Subramanya. During our discussion, we noticed that it was relatively easy to establish an e-commerce business or customer support operation.
However, physical work requires spreadsheets, WhatsApp groups, or essential SaaS tools. These tools can have limitations and may not meet the needs of a business as it grows and evolves.
For instance, while there are some well-known companies in the logistics space, such as Locus, most tools focus on optimising efficiency and routing. They rarely address core logistics challenges— moving items from one location to another.
This aspect of physical work still needs to be addressed. Even Bounce, a notable player in this space, initially relied on in-house solutions to address these needs.
Mobile apps are often essential for these products, but developing them can be lengthy and resource-intensive. It may take several months to a year and require a team of engineers, product managers, and other professionals. This can cost a million dollars.
Additionally, the opportunity cost can be high, as these resources could be put to more productive use elsewhere.
We identified an opportunity to create a platform that enables clients to build their internal team apps in as little as 15 to 20 minutes. With Zorp-Build Native Apps for Operations, users have created various products, ranging from standard daily and core logistics apps to warehouse and dog walking apps.
YC- How many types of apps can users create with Zorp, and which ones are the most popular?
Bala- Zorp allows users to build many apps, including expense management, leave applications, core logistics, warehousing, eCommerce, and delivery. Field sales apps are top-rated, as are customer onboarding and logistics apps. Home services apps are also gaining in popularity.
YC- Can you provide some numbers, such as your ideal customer demographics and the competitive landscape in which your startup operates?
a) Market: We estimate that our target market is valued at approximately $120 billion globally, as manual labour comprises about 80% of all jobs worldwide. However, products designed for manual labourers are often created by individuals who work at desks all day. This can lead to a disconnect.
The Indian market is growing and is estimated to be worth $17.5 billion, with an annual growth rate of around 16%. 📈📈
b) Customers: Our primary target market is businesses in the growth stage that require our products to manage their operations. We are primarily targeting funded consumer tech and consumer-facing companies in the seed stage, both in the US and India.As of June 2022, we have 11 beta customers, most of whom are Indian companies.
c) Competition: Currently, there are no well-established competitors in our specific market. Some companies like Appify and Appian are expanding their market share, but they primarily cater to enterprise clients.
Other startups, like Retool and Buildup, have also introduced mobile versions of their products. AppSheet, another startup in this industry, was recently acquired by Google. We also have a few early-stage players like FieldProxy, whose founder Swaroop Vijayakumar is a colleague and friend from my previous company, Stayzilla.
YC- What are your thoughts on the challenges SaaS founders face: product-market fit, marketing and sales?
Bala- 1. Adapting to the market’s needs: We initially tried to offer a comprehensive solution but later realised it did not align with market needs. As a result, we had to discard approximately 40% of what we had already developed.
2. Flexibility: Our platform allows users to build and customise solutions through drag-and-drop functionality easily. However, we are open to adapting and implementing different approaches through coding if the market indicates a need for it.
3. Steady customer growth and strategic investments: Since entering the beta phase in December, we have steadily grown our customer base with minimal promotional efforts. In May, we launched our self-serve platform. We also invested in content creation and community outreach efforts. These will be the primary drivers of our growth.
YC- How did you acquire your initial customers?
Bala – There is an interesting story behind how we acquired our first few customers. Our first client agreed to work with us, and we had already negotiated the pricing. But they ultimately pivoted and shut down their entire business vertical. 😒😒 Our second client took four months to go live, and the third customer did not pay us for five months.
Even before our product was fully developed, we wrote about the problem we were trying to solve and spoke to potential customers to generate interest.
Initially, we didn’t have a self-serve product. We built it by working closely with clients and understanding their needs. This allowed us to gain valuable insights into relevant use cases and helped us to tailor the product to meet customer needs.
YC- What advice or suggestions would you like to share with other startup founders who are just starting their entrepreneurial journey?
- Co-founder Matching: It is crucial to find the right co-founders. The entrepreneurial journey will inevitably involve challenges and difficult discussions. Your ability to work through these challenges and disagreements with your co-founders will be crucial to your success.
- Focus on the Problem: Make the problem statement your top priority. The product or solution may change based on user feedback. If you focus too heavily on development, you may not be able to make the business work.
- There are No Shortcuts: During the early stages of your startup, be willing to try new things and step outside of your comfort zone. Your efforts will ultimately pay off if you continue learning and adapting.
- The Power of Compounding: Consistency is crucial whether you are writing a blog post, making sales calls, or sending emails. You may not see immediate results. However, your efforts will eventually pay off and start accumulating, bringing in more customers over time.
- Be Genuine: Being sincere and honest in all aspects of your business is crucial. Your product reflects your values and character. If you are not genuine, it will be evident in your work.
YC- What books would you recommend to other startup founders, and what Twitter accounts do you think are worth following?
Bala- Some of my recommendations would be:
As a startup founder, I highly recommend ‘The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers’ by Ben Horowitz. It’s been a bible for me. I often refer to it for guidance and inspiration during difficult times. It has helped me navigate the business’s challenges and provided valuable insights and lessons.
1. Paul Graham has a wealth of valuable insights on various topics.
2. Y Combinator shares valuable and helpful content.
3. Naval shares thought-provoking content, although I don’t follow him as closely these days.
YC- What keeps you motivated and driven in your work? 🎯🎯🎯
Bala- I come from a less privileged economic background, So I have had to work hard to catch up and advance in my career. Instead of striving for linear growth, I have adopted the philosophy of taking significant “step jumps” in my career decisions.
All my decisions– leaving Nokia to join Cisco, choosing a startup over consulting, or starting my own business when I could have taken a well-paid product leadership role had been step-jumps.
I am persistent and willing to put in the hard work to see my plans through, even if it takes many years. I am not naturally intelligent in the same way as others, but I have learned that I can still make things happen through determination and perseverance.
One quote that consistently inspires and motivates me is from Stoic philosopher Seneca: “You always suffer more in imagination than reality.” I have found this to be true in many situations, as things often turn out to be less good or bad than we expect. It helps me stay focused and keep working towards my goals.
YC- How would you describe yourself as a person?
Bala- I am someone who values kindness and upholds high moral standards. It is crucial to be ethical and decent, regardless of the setting or situation. While others’ opinions of me may have changed over time, my commitment to these values has remained constant.
My wife, Pratibha, and I joke that there are only two types of CEOs: those who are already assholes and those who will eventually become assholes 😂😂. She told me I must quit my job if I ever became an asshole. I hope I never become one!
Thank you for a wonderful conversation. Your insights were greatly appreciated, and Yellow Chapetr wish you the best in your future endeavours.