Let us read through the fantastic journey of Puneet and his brainchild, Labellerr.
YC: Hi Puneet, welcome to Yellow Chapter. We are eager to hear about your journey, and we would like to listen to you from the very beginning. Can we start with your childhood?
Puneet: I was born in Mansa district, Punjab. My mother is a homemaker. My father was the one who took care of my studies and persuaded me to go for Engineering. My father was in the electricity department of Punjab; hence we were on the move every three years.
Frequent transfers had their pros and cons. The good part was that I became more adaptable and learned to manage my emotions. As a kid, leaving your friends is quite challenging. But the downside is that I don’t have friends from the very beginning. No childhood buddies. But now i have some close friends from college Thapar.
Expectations, expectations, expectations…..
Our dinner table conversations were mainly focused on my performance in academics. My dad was a champ during his time. One of my cousins got through IIT Delhi. I tried hard but was not able to get through JEE. I got AIEEE and landed at the Thapar Institute of Engineering and Technology.
From the very beginning, I was keener on Aeronautical Engineering but, based on my rank, landed up taking Computer Science as most of us do.
YC: How was college? What would you suggest to college students?
Carving my path …
Puneet: Again, there are pros and cons to it. Unfortunately, my college focused only on academics. Extra-curricular activities, workshops, exchange programmes etc., were not there. The ecosystem to explore and learn was severely lacking.
The good part is that I learned to fend for myself. I explored and did a couple of exciting internships outside of college.
Start making your own decisions. In India, parents and society are a significant influence in decision making. Most students don’t go for their choices, fearing their parents’ objections.
Talk to many people, read, gather information, and if you are convinced of what you want to do, go for it.
My philosophy of education and professional life is quite simple – Mondays should be interesting!
YC: After college, what were your options, and what choice did you make?
Puneet: 2010 – I started my professional journey with Sapient as an Associate. Again, we don’t choose our first job; it chooses us. CGP = job options = first job.
Experience – I wanted to work on various problems; I wanted to learn and explore. I was ready to take responsibility. But the culture around was more of a 9 am to 5 pm one. It was challenging but not interesting.
2012! I ordered something online and got an email with my tracking details one day. While tracking my package, I landed on Delhivery’s website.
It was an elementary website. I landed on the team page. It had profiles of the founding team members – Sahil Barua, Suraj Saharan, Kapil Bharati, Mohit Tandon, and Bhavesh Manglani. All had a good pedigree and left their high paying jobs. I knew something exciting was in the making.
There was a small button saying, “We are hiring”. I quickly sent my resume.
My resume was selected. When the interviewer asked, “What kind of role are you looking for?” I said, “Anything and everything in tech or operations. Most importantly, with my work, I want to see the impact created visibly.”
I joined Delhivery as a Lead Analyst, Business Activity Monitoring & Reporting.
Delhivery, was a life-changing experience!
My role was challenging, engaging, and of course, always afresh!
The major takeaways from Delhivery:
- Boosting self-confidence – It was a bold decision to leave a comfortable job and join a 1.5 years old startup then. My first step towards my passion and Delhivery served as the right platform.
- Execution. It was phenomenal to see and learn how the team was so execution-focused. They were trying to disrupt the logistics market, which was tough and heavily dominated by big players like BlueDart, DTDC, FirstFlight, DHL, etc.
- Team. You cannot do it alone – Delhivery’s founding team had complementary skills with one goal.
YC: What was your journey after Delhivery?
Puneet: 2015! I moved to Lybrate – a Mobile Healthcare Technology Company, as a Data Scientist.
I now realise job selection should be “On the problem statement basis and not on a job basis.”
My new role was all about Data & AI.
- Implementation of data-driven decisions.
- Impact of data-driven decisions.
- Being a startup again, I got the exposure to see how businesses operate closely.
Next was Ephesoft – Intelligent Document Processing solutions as Senior Data Science Consultant. It was a short stint.
Learning – Using data for business decisions.
YC – By then, was being an entrepreneur somewhere in your mind or were you enjoying your professional journey?
Puneet – Hmmm… working very closely with CXOs of the founding teams and startups, I realised that I have to figure out a problem and build a solution around it. I wanted to create an impact. But I was not very confident enough to start.
2016! I joined RateGain – B2B Travel Technology Company as – Lead Data Scientist.
1. Encourage new ideas – I got a lot of support and encouragement for taking up new initiatives apart from regular work from my bosses Anand Medepalli and Hanas Bose.
2. Belief in myself – When you see the real impact of your work, believe me, it’s magnificent!
3. Relationships – Always maintain good relationships with your peers and managers. You might have to reach out to them to get their opinions, suggestions, and feedback later in life.
YC: What were the options you had when you thought of your career ahead? Why AI space?
Puneet – 2018! There were common patterns across companies I had worked with, AI deficiencies. My objective was obvious – “How can I contribute to an initiative, leveraging AI for the positive good.”
I had two options:
1. SaaS – Build AI software which people can use.
2. Ed-tech – Educate, train and guide people to use AI.
I chose the latter, but it did not work for me.
We started with a small weekend meetup group – Data Science, Delhi. The idea was simple – To meet like-minded people, discuss, explore and design AI solutions for companies and train people to use them.
We got an overwhelming response. The group started meeting during weekdays as well. RateGain supported our initiative by giving us office space.
Problem – We realised our meetups were just like sessions. People were coming, attending the sessions, and that’s it. There was no hustle beyond it.
We wanted to replicate the Silicon Valley model wherein companies are formed by fulfilling the long term projects.
Solution – So, we decided to source Open Source Projects, which we can engage people to work on. We realised a requirement for an organisation to spearhead the project. Otherwise, it won’t last.
Hence, Eduwaive Foundation– Driving Social Impact with Big Data, Data Science and AI in education, agriculture, healthcare and smart cities, was born!
We roped in a few professionals and managed to get a few projects. We also got 10,000+ students with us.
Problem – There were infrastructure issues. We were not scaling and not even delivering good work. My typical day was coordinating with professionals and students and dealing with management issues.
It was a B2C problem, more of an execution game and wasn’t aligning with my aptitude.
Also, other ed-tech startups came up in the meantime, and they were way better in execution than us.
So, we closed down the Eduwaive Foundation. All along, I was working on the initial version of Labeller – A fully managed service to AI-first organisations developing computer vision-based automation.
2019! I started seeing some traction in Labeller and decided to move ahead with it.
Although I made a big mistake here, I started working on Labeller without doing the necessary market research, but luckily it went in the right direction.
YC: For my readers, can you tell me what Labellerr is?
Puneet – Sure, large companies that invest heavily into AI, have large AI teams that do a lot of R&D. Automated cars that can self-drive, automatic CT scans etc., are examples of this development. These projects need vast amounts of data to function, and projects get stalled due to unavailability.
For them, getting this data iteratively and ensuring that they will be constantly provided with data is vital to focus on their problem statement. Training data as a service is what we offer them. It is specifically based on smart vision, including smart cams.
We have our platform and manage service providers who handle data, secure it and manage projects. We provide rich analytics over it so that data scientists can build their models quicker.
YC: SaaS founders have three challenges: product-market fit, marketing and sales? What is your take on these?
Puneet – Great question, let’s start with PMF:
PMF – Being a computer graduate and not knowing how a business operates, I initially built what I wanted to build. I was building software and not a product. We were continuously adding features and not value. I even hired a team which was very much like me.
We had few customers, but our revenues were not streamlined. We did not have recurring revenues either. I then began the market research. I could sense that things were not going in the right direction.
I knew I needed a mentor and a critique, someone with a complimentary mindset. I came across Prasanna Krishnamoorthy at Upekkha – SaaS Accelerator & Early-stage Fund for founders. I used to read his Quora posts and then question myself.
I eventually reached out to him, and he convinced me to join the six months Upekkha program. In two attempts, we were able to get through it.
Going forward, the Upekkha community has helped me with PMF, sales, and marketing.
The major learnings from Upekkha:
Value + Repeatability
- Market research – It’s easy to start with what you know—especially for tech founders who love to code. As soon as they encounter a problem, they start coding. But there are other essential aspects to be considered.
- Identifying the problem.
- Look for available solutions.
- Evaluate what value you can bring in.
2. Setting timelines – Having a well-defined timeline is good for the team. The work should be then defined and allocated accordingly.
3. Talk – To a lot of people. People from the industry, potential customers and actual customers. Thanks to Upekkha, our work process has changed – We don’t code first anymore. We talk to many people first, understand the value next, and then code. If there isn’t a value factor, we don’t code.
4. Shifting the focus from India to the US – For 80% of B2B SaaS, especially AI, the US is the first market.
5. Have open conversations – Initially, my discussions were very sales-oriented, but now I focus on open conversations. I engage in conversations with the intent to help and not to sell.
Even when I am engaging on social media platforms, be it LinkedIn or Twitter, my approach is the same. I try to add value to the conversation. Whatever I read and find value in it, I simplify it and post it for the social good without associating it with Labellerr. This approach has helped me in discovering new partnerships and referrals.
6. Finding the problem. Your job as a founder is to talk to people and understand their problems. Stop selling, stop pitching. Though, I am still learning problem extraction. A book I would recommend for young entrepreneurs – ‘The Mom Test: How to Talk to Customers and Learn If Your Business is a Good Idea when Everyone is Lying to You’ – by Rob Fitzpatrick.
7. Marketing – Product building and marketing should be done simultaneously. Talking to people from the industry, talking to potential, SEO is all marketing. In marketing (and even sales), focus on the value you provide to your customer.
8. Bucket customers based on their actions and not words – People will always give “WOW” expressions whenever you talk about your product. But believe me, hardly anyone would be willing to try.
Initially, pick customers who use some tools to solve their problems but do not get the desired results. They are easy to convert, and you will start having some revenue flowing in.
Next, you can create awareness of your product and show potential customers what benefit they can leverage.
YC: Can we talk about some numbers?
Puneet: We are profitable, it is around 40%. We are currently at 10K MRR. We will be touching 1 Million ARR by the end of March 2023. We have already figured out our Ideal Customer Persona (ICP). We are now targeting AI teams of medium enterprises with 10-50 million annual revenue as our customers.
Our current customers over the past two years have increased business with us. We are currently bootstrapped. Until we find the right product-market fit, we would like to remain the same.
YC: What keeps you going at tough times?
Puneet: My team. I am lucky to have the right team. All 10 of my team are passionate, and they are my inspiration.
The guidance from the Upekkha community is my strength. My family and friends, too, have been a support in my journey.
Puneet, it was a great conversation. Thank you for those frank and friendly answers. Yellow Chapter wishes you all the very best in your future journey.