Syed Harris is not the usual entrepreneur who went to top B-School to learn business. He learned business the hard way from the school of hard knocks. The real world.
Even after multiple failed startups, he did not lose the belief in himself. He kept going and found his way through.
Now he is on a mission to make World’s Best Restaurant Management Software – Possier.com
Let us read through a fascinating story of untiring passion for business and life!
YC: Hi, Syed. Welcome to Yellow Chapter!
Entrepreneurship is a journey which includes many things, some right choices, tough calls, and vision. Can we start your journey from the beginning?
Syed: I was born and brought up in Chennai. I did my schooling at St. John’s School. I was an average kid in my studies. My parents were never the typical pushy kind of parents. My father was a state government employee, and my mother a homemaker.
I wanted to pursue my BBA and then an MBA post 12th. Somehow I felt business was my thing. Although no one in our family has done business, the flair for doing my own something was there in me quite early on.
But my dad wanted me to go for Engineering and specifically Computer Science Engineering, as everyone around him recommended him to do that. He thought Engineering would give me a better job opportunity and package. So even though Engineering wasn’t my choice, I went for it—Computer Science and Engineering at MVJ College, Bangalore.
An Enchanting Exposure
I was not very happy pursuing Engineering but was getting a chance to move out of Chennai. It was exciting, and I was looking forward to getting new experiences in a different city.
Initially, I didn’t like Bangalore. I was dead homesick; the climate was different, and so was the language. But gradually, I started liking the place; I started appreciating the exposure I was getting.
Learning – Initially, moving out of my bubble was tough, but I realised if I am stuck in my bubble, my growth will be hampered.
@ My parents
YC: A lot of engineering students read our blog, what would you suggest to them? How can they make the best of their college days?
Syed: Explore, Explore, Explore! To find your true calling.
Indian SaaS space will grow upto $116 billion in revenue by 2026; there are a lot of opportunities around. Look for internships, and work with startups. Explore options within and outside the college. Trying new things so that you might be able to figure out your true calling sooner.
If you want to learn things fast in a specific domain, then join a promising startup in that domain. There is no alternative to it.
YC: Post engineering you did not pick up a job? Why? What was the plan?
Syed: As mentioned earlier, the itch to do a business of my own was still alive. I decided to go for it. I did my research and zeroed down to shirt manufacturing. I convinced two of my friends to invest + with my own savings we managed to start with around Rs 60k.
I procured the raw material from Bombay, got really good quality fabric, buttons, and threads, designed the shirts and got them manufactured. I named the brand ‘Gerry Cader – Italian design shirts.‘ My intention was to do something like Peter England.
I was hands-on, from designing the logo to packaging the shirts. I signed a 300+ shirts manufacturing order with American Eagle, a big name then. I still remember they were quite impressed by the packaging, material, design and all of it. I was enjoying the whole process. We procured more and we were selling around 600+ shirts, I did not only break even but even made a tiny profit.
But my dad was very upset. My venture partners and friends, one was going to Germany as a software developer and the other to Singapore. My father has an aversion to business as a profession since there are a lot of uncertainties around the business. We started having heated arguments almost daily, so I decided to shut down and pick up a job with SoftLogics.
1. Build a team that thinks long term.
2. Detailing matters. With my limited knowledge and straight out of college, I managed to do a decent job with Gerry Cader. I knew whatever you are selling should look good, feel good.
YC: How was your first job? How was the experience, can we talk about it?
Syed: Sure, it was a very short stint for two months. I was into US sales. I was selling US grant process preparation as a service to American citizens. One of my friends, who was a web designer, said “Syed, you have done Computer Science Engineering and also understand the business better than I do. So you get the clients, why not get design projects where I will do the designing and you build a team to code it”.
Initially, I was very reluctant. From my college days, I knew I was not good at computers compared to other students around. I thought I would never be able to make a good living out of computers.
But I still decided to give the idea proposed by my friend a shot. While working on the job.
A Pleasant Surprise!
I signed a Rs 50K contract!
Through my contacts, I came to know a real estate company wanted to get a website. I met the owner, presented a layout and Voila got the contract. I randomly quoted 50K and he gave me a 50 per cent cash advance. I was spellbound! This is more than my salary then.
I thought that to sell Rs.300 a shirt, I had to literally struggle, but here within 30 mins of conversation, I was able to sign a 50K contract, even without delivering the end product.
This man, who has seen me for about half an hour, just gave me an amount of money that I hadn’t even imagined. It was then that I wanted to know more about development and computers, haha!
2004! I decided to quit and started a web development company.
YC – So an entrepreneur again, how was the journey going forward?
Syed – I kind of did my engineering again but this time I was very clear WHY I wanted to do it. I was unstoppable, and within no time we built around 10+ websites and also some applications.
We have built 100+ websites and apps for Small and Medium Enterprises. We even got a government project, Tamil Nadu Energy Development Agency (TEDA), it was huge. We had 8000 vendors on a single platform.
- Government projects had wafer-thin margins.
- Delayed payment cycle.
- Very tiring process.
I was very clear I want to build something in B2C space, something for the end-user. Food tech has always been very close to my heart for some reason. Masala Street – Best food online.
2013! I onboarded 150+ outlets in Chennai. My pitch was straightforward:
Sales pitch – I told the restaurant owners I would get you orders and charge 10% as commission for the same.
Advertising plan – Again, that was very simple; I ran ads on Facebook. I still remember the ad creative, “Order Chicken Biryani and get Rs.50 off”. I ran an ad for Rs.900 and the very same day I was able to earn Rs.900 as commission.
- Inexperience – I was getting my ROI the same day just from my commissions, I was too naive to understand it.
- Focus on one thing – I was managing consulting work and working on my startup. Focus on one thing is very important. Doing two things is not good for your company’s vision and growth.
- Lack of awareness – I was not aware of what was happening in the food tech industry the world over. I could not see; I was sitting on a gold mine. The restaurant owners were requesting us to help in the delivery of food. We as a small team didn’t want to do that.
- Unable to capitalise on the opportunity & identify the gaps – Many restaurants asked me to manage delivery for them. I didn’t realise back then that it was my opportunity. I would particularly like to mention here if multiple clients are asking for one standard feature/service which is a pain point for them, it is an opportunity for you. Grab it with both hands. I should have asked for more commission and solved for delivery as well.
- Team – I, along with one developer, was managing all by myself—onboarding up new restaurants, marketing, and customer service. My hands were too full. Taking additional work was just impossible. I did a good job here but could not pull through like the big players now – FoodPanda, Zomato, Swiggy etc. and decided to pivot to B2B.
I was doing a good job here but in 2014! Foodpanda launched a food delivery service in India, with some 100 Cr. investment. At that time, I was not ready for funding, VCs etc. I had no choice but to pivot to B2B.
Simple pitch – I approached a few restaurant chains and offered a platform wherein they can list their restaurants in their name, and market the same in their name – Whitelabel online ordering for Restaurants.
Marrybrown was my first customer. I was charging 5% as my platform fee and an additional 5% for order conversion. I saw some revenue coming in – 5k per month then 15k then 50k and within 6 months it was around 2L per month! I was relieved. By now, we were powering e-commerce for many leading food brands.
But again we had to pivot.
- Not growing fast enough – I was satisfied with what I was earning. I only pulled up my socks when the competition had entered the market. I hired interns, expanded my team, and started selling in the North but by then it was late.
- Could not see competition coming – 2015, Swiggy came with $2 million in seed funding. Then Zomato also started with online ordering. I started losing market share very rapidly.
A New Beginning…2nd Start
Oruplace – World’s First Live Video Shopping Platform
Mid 2016! It took us a year to develop the video shopping platform. We were focusing on the clothing segment. We reached out to Pothys – A chain of textile showrooms in South India. They were already generating a revenue of 50 lakhs per month via Skype selling. Gave a demo of an MVP, and they were stunned by our solution! I was confident with our solution they will be easily able to generate minimum 1Cr revenue per month.
Skype selling was a broken experience, wherein our platform was not. You can see products live, interact with the salesperson in-store, add to a cart and buy. All over a live video call. We even had Paypal payments integrated. Prabhakaran and Venkatesh (my co-founders) and I were super excited.
2016-2017 – Pothys wanted an exclusive solution for them. We wanted a marketplace kind of a solution. We reached out to many retailers, we took feedback from the customers in malls and shops. Retailers were equally excited and gave us a lot of suggestions for feature development. Till now, we had already invested 1.5 years in product development. Finally, we launched our product BUT the end-user, THE CUSTOMER, was not ready for a video shopping experience. Unfortunately, we failed again!
1. Market was not ready – Unlike now, the market was not prepared then for a video shopping platform. We did this in the 3G era, before WhatsApp video call.
2. Launch and let the market teach you. We were busy building. Product is 25% product and 75% is marketing and sales. We did it the other way.
3. E-commerce might be big for branded players like Nike but still for non-branded players it is just 4%-5%. India is majorly a non-branded market. Though this is also gradually changing with many D2C players coming up.
4. Capital – If you are working on an idea which is ahead of the market and you have a very strong conviction that sooner or later this idea will work, you should have enough money to sustain it. You should have the financial bandwidth to wait for that right time.
Doorknock.in – 30 minutes delivery from any stores near you
Short stint. Believe me delivery is a very tough business. Dealing with blue collars is tough, real tough. Back then there were no KYC regulations, false data, no Aadhaar etc.
I was managing delivery for local businesses and even restaurants. Few restaurants were struggling with proper billing systems, raw materials tracking, payments, multiple vendors, all of it.
2018-2019 – Believe me I had burnt my fingers so many times by now, that I quickly grabbed the opportunity, Possier – World’s Best Restaurant Management Software was born!
@ Team Possier
YC: What would be the major learnings you would like to share with your fellow co-founders?
1. Hiring – Apart from skill, hire for intent and enthusiasm.
2. Marketing – Figuring out the right market and right messaging is a journey by itself. Start working on it even before launching the product. ‘The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing Book by Al Ries and Jack Trout’ is a book I would recommend to everybody.
3. Sales – Remember any product is 75% marketing/sales and 25% product. Sales = Followup. Align your sales team with your mission/goal.
4. Design – Invest in design. Trust me, it is worth the effort.
YC: Can we talk about some numbers, competitors and future plans?
Syed: We have about 450 + outlets on our platform. We are also generating monthly recurring revenue of 9-10 lakhs. Mid this year, we are planning to launch Possier.Inc, for the US markets as well.
Competitors – There are two types of players in the market, the best and the cheapest. If you are in the middle, you will not be able to win the market. Cheapest is already taken by many competitors and the best is in the making.
We are planning for seed funding this year.
YC: Little philosophical question, which I ask all my founders – what keeps you going at tough times?
Syed: The purpose to do something big which will help a lot of people in our case Restaurants.
When times are tough, the only problem is you doubt yourself. An entrepreneur should have grit! Have fear but don’t operate in fear. Believe me, I have burnt my fingers so many times but I had a strong conviction on being a successful entrepreneur and hence just kept going and I will keep going until we help a million restaurants worldwide.
A must-read – Relentlessly Resourceful by Paul Graham.
Lastly, love what you do, it is very important.
YC: People whom you would like to thank in this journey?
Syed: Himayath Fathima, my mother! She is the first person whom I would thank the most. Whenever I try to do something, she supports me wholeheartedly. My dad still doesn’t like business and I strive hard to make him realise that I took the right decision.
My wife, Dr. Lykha Begum, supported me in everything. One person who will be beside me even in my defeat is my wife. Without her, this journey is not possible.
@ with Lykha
My teammate Prabhakar, who is like a brother to me. Marc and Keetha constitute my support system.
Mr. Balaji is a mentor and advisor who has advised me in thinking from the numbers and finance side of business operations.
Thank you, Syed. It was phenomenal talking to you. Your frankness is worth mentioning, and we believe and sincerely hope Possier will be the World’s Best Restaurant Management Software.