Meet Lalit Pagaria, who is on a mission to stir up the customer analytics market.
In 2021, Lalit won second prize in the first global hackathon organized by RBI- “HARBINGER – Innovation for Transformation,” for his open-source project Obsei. Soon after, he started building Oraika, a customer feedback tool. His long-term vision is to create an ETL Platform for Unstructured Data.
In an exclusive conversation with the Yellow Chapter, Lalit opens up about his life, professional journey and the challenges of building from scratch.
YC- Welcome to the Yellow Chapter. This interview aims to understand you, your life choices, your professional road map, and finally, Obsei and Oraika. Can we start from the very beginning? Like, where were you born? I want to take you back to your early childhood days.
Lalit: I was born and raised in Begun, a small town in Chittorgarh district, Rajasthan. I belong to the Marwari community, and everyone thinks business. I am the only member of my family with an engineering degree and a tech background.
My father was in a semi-government job. My mother is a very simple woman. She was in constant touch with my teachers and kept track of my progress in school. This made me accountable for my studies.
Both my parents were unable to complete their studies. They were super supportive and stood by me the entire time. I really want to thank my parents for where I am today. Despite coming from a modest upbringing, they were always supportive of me.
YC – How was college? What are some suggestions you have for engineering students? How can they get the most out of college life?
Lalit: College was good; I kept exploring and learning. I did a Polytechnic Diploma in Electronics Engineering @BTTI Pilani. I’d never used a computer before my diploma, but I found it fascinating once I did. I decided to major in computer science for graduation and joined the Computer Science Engineering programme at MBM Engineering College, Jodhpur.
I wanted to pursue further studies in computer science engineering. I cleared GATE and joined MS Computer Science and Engineering @IIT Madras 🎓🎓🎓-2007-10.
Suggestion for Engineering Students on Campus 📖:
Just one – Take up more practice-oriented projects/internships. Now, there are so many opportunities around. Theoretical knowledge will help you somewhat, but practical knowledge will take you far. Building real projects matters more than anything else.
Suggestions for Engineering Students on How to Pick a Job:
- Early on in your career, prioritize learning over the package.
- You’ll be spending a lot of time at work. So, please find out about the company’s work culture and ensure you are comfortable with it.
- Till you join, keep the communication channels open with the HR team.
- Try to join younger teams. Young engineers usually struggle to get quality work in a team with many seniors. Also, the adaptability of younger groups is faster. Fresh out of college, I joined a team where everyone had 10+ years of experience. I had to struggle for their attention. Ask for opportunities, and build trust.
- Improve communication skills and learn networking.
- Ask probing questions to HR before joining, like –
- Option to change teams. Sometimes, you are in a group you dislike and might want to leave. It would help if you tried team migration instead of switching jobs in such a situation. Team migrations are easier than company migrations.
- Watch out for frequency and tone of communication. The company should make you feel like a future employee, not a mere resource.
YC – Can we discuss the professional roadmap and learnings along the way?
Lalit- I participated in campus placements and was lucky enough to get two offers from Nvidia and Brocade. I majored in computer networks and joined Brocade (acquired by Broadcom).
2010-2015: Software Engineer @Brocade – It is a global technology leader that designs, develops and supplies a broad range of semiconductor and infrastructure software solutions.
Learnings from Brocade 💻
- Create opportunities for yourself: Look out for tasks that your seniors or managers cannot complete due to other priorities. Try and automate small tasks to make their work easier and faster. I did the same.
- Step outside of your comfort zone: Mingle with colleagues in your team and other teams. Discuss and observe.
- Keep an eye on where the company is headed: Closely following the leadership team will help determine the company’s next major step.
- Visibility is critical: After doing the work, you also have to highlight. Visibility = Opportunities.
@ Team Brocade
2015 – 2018: Software Development Engineer @Olacabs
Why did you switch – Brocade is a corporate company. A typical process-oriented company. Everything was fixed—goals, quarterly objectives, and yearly goals. Though there was predictability, it was becoming monotonous. This was around 2015, when the country was experiencing a start-up boom, so I decided to quit Brocade to join a start-up.
I didn’t want to take too many risks. I didn’t want to join a very early stage start-up. I interviewed with Ola. My interview experience at Ola was very nice. I visited their campus, and during the break, I freely explored the space and got a chance to interact with employees. I concluded that it is a pleasant place to work.
I could also relate to the concept; hence, I accepted when they made me an offer.
Learnings from Ola 🚗🚗🚗
The environment at Ola was very different compared to my previous company. It took me some time to settle. At Ola, execution and speed were our main focus areas. They had a superb team, and I learned a lot from them. I would like to especially mention Nilesh Hiray (my manager) and Pranav Tiwari (my skip manager). The things they taught me are invaluable. At Ola, I learnt –
- How to manoeuvre amid the chaos? The direction might be very hazy, but you have to navigate. I wouldn’t have had that experience anywhere else.
- How to communicate with stakeholders? In my day-to-day work, I had to communicate with various stakeholders ranging from product managers to strategic to the business team.
- How are business decisions made? I learnt about the company framework, which covers everything from decision-making to implementation to final feedback.
2018-2021: Software Engineer @Careem (Acquired by Uber) 🚘🚘🚘
Why did you switch – At this point, Ola started becoming more process-oriented. I was constantly thinking, “What next?” I decided to try an early-stage start-up in India or explore a new geography. That was when Careem reached out. They had given me the option of working in either Dubai or Germany. I chose Germany.
The primary reason for me to choose Careem was the location. I was curious how the geographical shift would affect me, though the job was in the same mobility vertical. Many ex-Ola employees had joined Careem and spoke highly of the organization.
Learnings from Careem 🚗🚗🚗
At Careem, I learnt the following –
- How to work with a diverse team? My team had people from five continents, and one needed to be careful while working with people from diverse backgrounds.
- How to efficiently do time management? In Germany, where every meeting starts and ends at a predefined time, one needs to be kind and considerate about others’ time.
2020 – Open Source Developer (https://github.com/lalitpagaria) I enjoyed my work at Careem. But I like exploring and keeping up with current trends in tech. I am a firm believer in working on side hustles.
I found out about the NLP (Natural language processing) boom. I began exploring how I could contribute to this field. I searched for businesses in AI and NLP while also attending interviews.
I interviewed with Deepset – Bringing cutting-edge Natural Language Processing to the industry via open source. During one of these interviews, I was assigned to add Milvus integration with Haystack.
Though I did not receive an offer, I was thrilled with how the assignment turned out. I approached DeepSet’s team and asked if I could contribute to their repository. They agreed. I used to work after office hours and began contributing big time. At one point, I was contributing more than their staff. So, they made me a part of their community maintainers team.
I’ve never done the same thing twice in any of my jobs. My role at Brocade was system development. I was part of the founding team that built the allocation and discovery engine at Ola. At Careem, I was part of the Site Reliability (SRE) and Identity team while working on access management and cloud cost optimization without compromising reliability. Now I focus on entrepreneurship while building an AI start-up.
YC- How did Obsei happen?
Lalit: I decided to quit Careem and move back to India. By June 2021, I had started exploring opportunities for a start-up. Meanwhile, I was in regular touch with founders I met through my open-source contributions.
These founders assisted me in gaining further insights into the NLP domain. Being an angel investor, I could see common issues in a few of my friend’s and relatives’ start-ups:
- No single source of truth about customer feedback between various stakeholders in an organization like Product, Customer Success and Strategic teams.
- Manual customer feedback analysis often misses out on data from important feedback channels.
- Missing voice of the non-English customer while taking strategic decisions
Problem – Customer Feedback Automation.
Solution – The plan was to search Twitter for customer feedback and use NLP analysis to determine if it was a complaint. If it is, notify the team.
I started working on it. That is how the open-source project Obsei – A low-code AI-powered automation tool for understanding customer feedback, began to take shape.
Obsei- A Cognitive Automation Tool for Customer Feedback— Stands for Observe, Analyze and Inform.
- Observe– Collect customer feedback in text, audio or video mode from various channels like social media, emails, chatbots, support tickets, surveys, interviews etc.
- Analyze– Contextually understand the feedback and extract required features like sentiment, topic, language, and keywords.
- Inform– Provide actionable data in a consumable form, be it reports, dashboards or notifications over various channels like Slack messages, Jira, Zendesk, email etc.
@ RBI Hackathon award from Dy. Governer RBI
YC- How did Oraika happen?
Lalit: Earlier in 2021, I considered turning Obsei into a product. So I started looking into other start-ups in the same industry.
I discovered that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had launched a global hackathon— “Harbinger 2021“. It was related to social listening. I felt Obsei fit the theme. By then, I had also got on board Girish Patel as a co-founder, and we applied for it.
We won second place in the hackathon. Overall, 377 companies participated, of which 23 were foreign companies. Following this, we built a SaaS solution on top of Obsei. We launched it as Oraika – A tool to collect feedback across channels and extract actionable insights to make better-informed business decisions.
YC- Can we talk about some numbers of Obsei & Oraika? And Suggestions for fellow founders?
Lalit: Business Vertical and Market Size: We are in the customer analytics market. In 2020, the TAM was $3.74 billion, and it is expected to reach $10.2 billion by 2026. The CAGR is 18.2% as per the report – CUSTOMER ANALYTICS MARKET – GROWTH, TRENDS, COVID-19 IMPACT, AND FORECASTS (2022 – 2027)
Six enterprises currently use Obsei. Based on their feedback, we are improving the product. Globally, there is no open-source project like Obsei, though many closed-source products exist.
Oraika remains in closed beta. We currently have three paid customers from India and outside. A few are in the pipeline. As we are running in bootstrapped mode, we don’t onboard free customers. We are profitable at this stage. Our technical architecture is built for scalability and flexibility. The present infrastructure, which three customers use, will serve 100 customers. So we are managing our infrastructure costs quite well.
Obsei: – Product managers and customer experience team. Obsei requires developer assistance for use. It is perfect for businesses that have an engineering and data science team.
Oraika is a finished product. We are currently focusing on B2C start-ups that fall below Series A and have adverse business impacts due to customer opinions. We are particularly interested in the hospitality industry.
The target for 2023 – We aim to get 100 customers on board with a plan to achieve $10K MRR while keeping unit economics under control.
We gather data, analyze it, and provide a dashboard to the potential customer before onboarding them. So, research is being done to make it self-serve, and there currently needs to be a product in the market that onboards customers on a self-serve basis.
The market for customer feedback analytics is not new. We have a few competitors, most of which are US-based, like: https://getthematic.com/ and https://www.sentisum.com/, along with recent entrant https://enterpret.com.
Competitive edge – Oraika can analyze feedback in non-English languages. As a result, we are focusing on businesses that get user feedback in their native language.
Careem, for example, receives 50% of its user feedback in Arabic and Urdu. However, the solution that they are using can only analyze English content. Similarly, 20% of SBI reviews are in non-English languages, and we were able to review that 20% as well during the RBI hackathon. We provide 100% analysis of your data.
We conduct our analysis using core NLP and deep learning models. In addition, our target customers will need help to afford the SaaS solutions these large US corporations offer.
@ With Girish
Suggestions for fellow founders:
- Every day is a new learning experience.
- Communication is critical. As tech founders, Girish and I, at times, struggle to balance: development + communication
- Get on board a co-founder with complementary skills.
- A mental break is a must – Spend time with family and friends.
- Hard Work is non-negotiable – There is no quick fix for success; it takes time.
- Impulsive decisions are not good. Often, founders work on their hunch but back it up with data for better output.
- Focus on data and external feedback to ensure you’re on the right track. Make informed choices.
YC- How did you get beta customers on board?
Lalit: Both of us (Girish and me) are technical founders. It took a lot of work for us to connect with customers and sell products. So, we use social media, primarily Twitter and LinkedIn. We posted regular updates about our products on these platforms and built an audience by sharing and helping people within our domain of expertise.
For Oraika, we depended mainly on our network. We approached people, told them about the concept, and asked if they wanted to try and buy. Next, we plan to work on SEO.
YC- How are you marketing Oraika?
- Reaching out and targeting customers via outbound channels and networks.
- Open source – We communicate with customers through Obsei, a distribution channel.
- Doubling down on SEO by publishing high-quality content on our website.
- Channel partners with combo packages. For example, if you purchase Freshdesk, you can also purchase Oraika. Oraika would then analyze the tickets generated or data collected by Freshdesk. As a result, you have a complete solution.
- Being a part of many start-up communities like 1000 Founders, SaaS Community, DataTalks.Club, Indie Hackers and SaaS Boomi.
YC- Let’s get philosophical. What is your investment philosophy as an angel investor + What keeps you going?
Lalit: Investment philosophy -I invest in the start-ups of my relatives| friends| and friends’ friends. The first filter is the person, and then the domain. I also consider my hunch.
What Motivates Me – That is a difficult question to answer. I enjoy what I do. I am self-motivated. I give my 100%. I know the potential of Oraika. The idea that what we’re creating has the potential to be big
Our vision is to be an “ETL Platform for Unstructured Data.” We started with text but will eventually incorporate audio + images + video into it. We know it will take time, so we are taking baby steps.